Review – Pinter Seven, Pinter at the Pinter Season, A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter, Harold Pinter Theatre, 2nd February 2019

Pinter SevenWith the glorious memories of Company earlier that afternoon still zinging in our heads, it was time to return to the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre for a very different form of entertainment for the evening. We’d seen most of the previous Pinter at the Pinters – unfortunately we had to miss 3 and 4 because of travel commitments – but they’d all been of a pretty high standard, with Pinter Six’s Party Time and Celebration being the absolute stand-out production of the season so far. How would Pinter Seven’s A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter fare against such illustrious competition?

G WhelanA Slight Ache was written in 1958 and first performed as a radio play in 1959. Flora and Edward are breakfasting in the garden on a hot summer day. After fretting over a wasp and getting confused over shrubs, an old matchseller appears at their back garden gate. His presence disturbs them, because a) they can’t understand why he positions himself there, b) they can’t decide what he’s actually doing (selling matches, obvs), and c) he never says a word, even when they try to engage him in lengthy, abstruse conversations. Eventually they invite him in, and their casual, polite conversation turns to the occasional insult and the downright surreal. Eventually Flora decides the matchseller is called Barnabas, and whilst she and Edward compete for his attention, he remains mute and invisible. At the end of the play, we see the Matchseller for ourselves – and we see that it is Edward, dressed up as a matchseller. Ah-huh.

John Heffernan and Gemma WhelanThis is one of Pinter’s deliberately puzzling little plays, with his recurring themes of false names – Edward doesn’t like it when Flora calls him Edward – false jobs (I bet he isn’t really a matchseller, just as I bet Flora wasn’t a Justice of the Peace and I bet Edward isn’t writing an essay on the Belgian Congo), ridiculous place names (the Membunza Mountain Range, south of Katambaloo, in French Equitorial Africa, which doesn’t exist in real life) and, in this case, pretentious wines (Wachenheimer Fuchsmantel Reisling Beeren Auslese – which does), blindness, (Edward has a slight ache in his eyes) and thinly veiled violence. As usual, you get the sense that the characters are courting danger from outside their immediate environment but are too hardwired in their own behavioural patterns to do anything about it.

John HeffernanPersonally, I didn’t find it a terribly satisfying play; it just doesn’t go far enough to make its point – whatever that may be. I did however enjoy Jamie Lloyd’s production. I thought it was smart to start it as though it were a radio play, being acted by two clipped-vowel BBC actor-types, seated on tall chairs in front of microphones, with an On Air sign distinctly On; and as the play progresses they leave that environment and start occupying the garden breakfast table in your mind, with just the occasional reminder that it is a radio play, such as when Flora treads on top of a tray of gravel to give the aural impression she’s walking up the garden path.

Gemma Whelan and John HeffernanJohn Heffernan’s Edward is an excellent study of a pompous and pernickety man, barely repressing the streaks of violence and anger in his soul. Gemma Whelan’s Flora is straight out of Brief Encounter, with an exquisite vocal turn that’s more 1930s than 50s, trying to make herself attractive for Barnabas whilst fantasising about bathing him; whether that’s like a baby or like a lover, is for you to decide. Well performed, and entertaining, but, for me, missing an edge that is more noticeable in most other Pinter plays.

Gemma WhelanA Slight Ache was really just a curtain-raiser for the long-awaited star-clash of Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer in The Dumb Waiter, Pinter’s 1957 two-hander, which features two gangster-type hitmen waiting in a basement for the instructions for their next job. As in A Slight Ache, the outside world encroaches on to their comfortless, although well-organised, little domestic arrangement, with an unruly kettle and an even unrulier toilet in the adjacent room, an envelope containing a dozen matches thrust under the door by hand unknown; and of course, the dumb waiter.

Danny DyerI’ll return to the play in the next paragraph, but let’s just take a minute to respect that curious entity, the dumb waiter. You may not know this, gentle reader, but my parents ran a village pub, and in 1970 the brewery who owned said establishment decided it was time we had a refurbishment. To encourage the early art of pub grub, they installed a dumb waiter that connected our kitchen upstairs to the sink area behind the Saloon Bar. It was a big, heavy contraption. Two thick ropes worked a pulley mechanism that sent this wooden box, with two shelves, up and down between the floors. It rather blew my childish brain that there was part of the building that belonged both upstairs and downstairs. I was fascinated by it, and would happily spend hours pointlessly sending items upstairs and downstairs just because I could. It linked two separate worlds; when you were in the kitchen, you had no idea what was going on behind the bar, and when you were in the bar, you had no idea what was happening in the kitchen. But you could send these enclosed shelves, up and down, as a kind of fact-finding emissary; ever-reliable, sharing the secrets of the seedy underworld and the lofty overworld. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle finally retired from that pub in 1988; but eighteen years on, the dumb waiter still worked as smoothly and as magically as ever.

Dyer and FreemanPinter’s Dumb Waiter comes with a voice tube; much more high-tech than our humble example, and providing an even stronger link from that dingy basement to the outside world. Ben and Gus, the nefarious couple, have no idea it’s there at first; which is why, when it suddenly comes to life, it’s a shock to us all; and the random sequence of food orders, that the guys have absolutely no way of fulfilling, is hilarious in its total pointlessness. But whilst they’re doing their best to please the masters upstairs, Ben also receives his orders for the job that he and Gus are expecting. And although Ben confirms that it’s “the normal method to be employed”, it looks like this will be the last job they do together…

Martin FreemanThe combination of Messrs Freeman and Dyer is something of a Pinteresque dream team. Mr Freeman’s Gus is a nervous, fidgety, inquisitive guy; the type who has to break a silence (and being Pinter, there are plenty of those!), the type who thrives on being reassured. Mr Dyer’s Ben is more laid-back, with the natural authority of superiority and the confidence to wait quietly; it’s he who communicates with the powers that be up above, but it’s also he who sweats the pressure of satisfying the bosses. In civil service terms, Gus is the Administrative Assistant whilst Ben is the Executive Officer.

Freeman and DyerBoth actors lend aspects of their own personalities and style to their characters, so that they’re immensely believable – in a sense you feel that perhaps there’s not a lot of acting required. Mr Dyer, in particular, always has that cheeky, irreverent sparkle in the corner of his eyes, so even when he’s being Proper Menacing, there’s a glint of a Likely Lad in there too. And although there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of menace lurking about the backwaters of this play, it’s performed fully for laughs and the audience recognises it as the crowd-pleaser it’s clearly designed to be. Only 27 performances scheduled for Pinter Seven, so you’d better be quick – it finishes on 23rd February!

D DyerP. S. Pinter Seven was to be the last of the season but that plucky little Tom Hiddleston has popped up with a production of Pinter’s Betrayal, which has now been tacked on to the end to make an unofficial Pinter Eight. This could carry on for ages. I think it’s unlikely we’re going to see this one – I’m very happy with my memories of John Simm in Betrayal in Sheffield in 2012 – and ATG have somewhat cynically whacked up the prices for this new production. One can have too much of a good thing!

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, 13th September 2014

Richard IIIYou know that thing when you’re really, really looking forward to something and then, for whatever reason, you don’t enjoy it like you think you’re going to? Welcome, dear reader, to my Richard III experience.

Martin Freeman as Richard III? Yes please! That was my instant reaction when the production was announced. I got on the internet as fast as my ATG Theatre Friends membership card would take me, and there was a great choice of seats everywhere. That’s when I realised there would be stage seating too. I’ve only done that once before – almost forty years ago, when I was on a school outing to see Equus (I know, but we were very advanced). In addition to the usual stalls, circle, balcony seats in what was then the Albery theatre (now the Noel Coward), that original production also had benches on the stage, behind the action, not particularly comfortable but with a significant rake that gave an excellent view of what was going on. It was odd to be in that position, and of course, there were times when the actors played out front and not to us so you missed a bit, but my memory of that is that it wasn’t a problem, and us lot at the back certainly got our fair share of attention from the cast. And of course we were so close to the action; I recall it felt incredibly exciting; a unique experience, in fact. So, remembering all that, I plumped for the stage seating for Richard III. I was reassured by the fact that it wasn’t cheap – if it had been, I would have been suspicious, and would have upgraded us to the front stalls in the traditional layout. It’s important for me to have good seats at the theatre – if I can’t see or hear as clearly as I want, my enjoyment level absolutely plummets. But – apart from those goddam Premium Seats – those stage seating seats were top price. So they’ve got to be a quality place to sit. Haven’t they?

Martin FreemanNo. They are awful, awful seats. Just awful. From our position of BB 11 and 12, the view was extremely obstructed, although primarily not from the people in row AA, but by the furniture and props that littered the stage. This is a very heavily “furnitured” set. The Trafalgar Studio 1 stage is not particularly big, but for this production it houses two long tables and about six other office desks, stacked high with pot plants, typewriters, telephones, and so on, to give you the impression of a 1970s office. It’s set in the 1970s, by the way, so that they can make the “winter of discontent” speech have a double meaning. Otherwise, there’s no particular link made from the play to the era. The offending desk that Mrs Chrisparkle and I mainly resented was the one right in front of us, at which no one sat, no one made a phone call from the phone, no one typed on the typewriter and no one watered the pot plant. If it hadn’t been there, we could have seen something, and it wouldn’t have affected the rest of the staging one iota.

The layout and blocking of the whole production is purely for the benefit of those in the regular seats. There are a few short scenes that take place very far stage right – I don’t know if they were on or off the stage as such as we couldn’t see. “Helpfully”, every so often a member of the cast swings an old TV set in front of us in the stage seating so that we can see what’s happening (these are £52.50 seats remember, not described as obstructed view), but either they didn’t leave it in the best position for us to see or it was obstructed by the people sitting in Row AA right in front of it. So that was a waste of space.

Gina McKeeShakespeare’s Richard III is a cruel, vicious swine. The rather simple story is that he kills everyone who can possibly get in the way of his becoming King, and once he is king, he’s got a bunch of rebels on his hands, one of which eventually kills him. Not a nice chap. This is quite a bloody production, and we get to see him despatch all his enemies and many of his friends too. Well, that’s the case if you’re sat in the traditional seats. From our position, we could only guess that was what was going on. Clarence dies by foul means involving a fish tank, but whether he was drowned, had his throat slit or got attacked by a piranha I don’t know, as his murderers masked the action from our sight. For Rivers’ death, it was one of the pesky long tables and chairs that got in the way of our view. At one moment, he was chatting away – a bit anxiously because he knew things were not looking good – the next he was writhing on the floor, doing a very convincing death rattle, but we had no idea why. Someone must have done something to him but who? And what? Stabbed? Poisoned? Disturbed his feng shui? We couldn’t tell. Then there was the death of Lady Anne. This took place right at the front of the stage, which is physically quite a distance from the stage seating. There was some unexpected movement from Richard and suddenly she was gargling. We think a phone wire was used, but as it all took place obstructed by that sodding typewriter, don’t take my word for it. During her death, to emphasise the atmosphere of anarchy and terror, some bright spark (the director?) decided to make the lift doors continually open and shut, open and shut, like something invisible was trapped there, thus creating a terrible din that really – REALLY – got on our nerves.

To say the production suffered from gimmicks would, I think, be an understatement. A week or so before we went, I received an email saying that you might get spattered with blood if you sit in rows A-D or in AA, so dress accordingly. Excuse me? Not only do you take £52.50 from people to sit somewhere they can’t see what’s going on, you’re also going to add to their laundry bill? I could see that a member of staff was addressing the people in the front three rows before the play started, presumably giving them warning. T-shirts were provided that you could put on to protect yourself. Only a few people did. The blood spattering comes from Richard’s doing away with yet another enemy – a man who was already very blood soaked from the start of the scene, but neither Mrs C nor I could recognise him or work out who he was. Researching for this blog, I now realise it was Buckingham – couldn’t tell from our angle. Not quite sure how it happened but we saw blood spurt out from around his neck high into the air and then splash down on the front rows. A lady in the front row who had obviously declined the T-shirt rushed for paper tissues from her handbag and was looking exceedingly annoyed. But it’s all pure gimmick. There was no need for it. Just come upstage a bit and the blood spurt wouldn’t have reached the paying punters. The same disregard for the audience that fleeces us for obstructed view seats also takes it for granted that we’d love to have our clothes all blood spattered before going out for a nice meal. We’re clearly the least important people in that production.

Jo Stone-FewingsOne more thing – Seat AA8 was allocated as a wheelchair space. Now, no criticism of the wheelchair user herself, of course, but I would question the wisdom of that allocation. The lady who sat there had a very tall wheelchair. If you looked at the height of the heads along the row, everyone was more or less the same height until you came to this last lady whose head came at least a foot taller than the rest. For the lady sitting directly behind her the whole performance must have been completely invisible. I can only hope she got the ticket for free or successfully asked for her money back, because it really was stupid. Her husband, sat next to me, had to constantly duck and dive in order to see anything; and indeed, for a lengthy time in the first act, he simply decided to go to sleep as it wasn’t worth the candle. Mrs C did the same thing too – when she realised what a struggle it was going to be to follow what was going on – she just gave up. Wheelchair seating can be a sensitive issue – they’ve definitely got it wrong here.

As for the production itself, we both felt it was very chewy and hard to follow in the first act. I admit it’s not a play with which I am particularly familiar, but even so, all the gimmicks and all the furniture simply got in the way of understanding. In an attempt to recreate the 70s setting, they had nearly all the men looking like each other. They each had the same Tom Selleck moustaches, the same severe black rimmed spectacles, the same swarthy complexions. I couldn’t tell Catesby from Buckingham from Richmond. Queen Margaret kept on drifting in and out in such an ethereal way I presumed she was meant to be a ghost. The second act was easier to follow, simply because less happened, but as Mrs C pointed out, even more of what did happen happened at the front of the stage and was spoken out to the main audience so that we heard very few of the speeches. Acoustically the setup is a shocker, and when an actor is out front declaiming to the stalls, we couldn’t hear a darn thing. Technically, it wasn’t a great performance; one of the few things we could see was a fax coming through on a printer that an actor tore off and read, but with that old fashioned sound of a dot matrix printer printing away long after the fax had been torn off and whilst the printer was at a complete standstill. It could have been straight out of Noises Off; bit pathetic, really.

Gabrielle LloydWe thought Martin Freeman, as far as we could judge, was really good in the role. He has a very intense stare and would be a really scary boss. His timing is great, and we assume he does a great line in quirky looks and comic asides, from the sound of the audience out front enjoying them, although we couldn’t see them. There’s a very strong scene between him and the excellent Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth, when she is condemning him for murdering her sons and trying to protect her daughter from being next on the list. Miss McKee gave a great performance as the grieving and bitterly furious mother. Fortunately that was one scene we could see properly. Jo Stone-Fewings was very good as Buckingham, professionally malign to further his cause with the king-to-be, then wounded and furious when he finds he has been duped; and I thought Gabrielle Lloyd as the Duchess of York lent the production some much needed gravitas – no gimmicks, nothing sensational, just clear enunciation and proper understanding of the text.

I think the rest of the run is now pretty much sold out. If you’ve got tickets for the ordinary seats, you’ll definitely derive some enjoyment out of it. If you’ve got stage seating, I wouldn’t throw good money after bad by buying a train ticket.