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 – Pinter Five, Pinter at the Pinter Season, The Room, Victoria Station, and Family Voices, Harold Pinter Theatre, 12th January 2019

Pinter FiveHaving really enjoyed Pinters One and Two, we regrettably had to miss out on Three and Four due to other commitments and travelling. It’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it. Nevertheless, we were back at the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre for the next two shows in Jamie Lloyd’s innovative and exciting season.

rupert graves in the roomPinter Five for the matinee then, not before enjoying the Champagne in the Ambassador Lounge which you get as part of the Champagne Package that went with Row D Stalls seats. Given that everything is expensive nowadays (sounding like a grumpy old man) the Champagne Package was excellent value and very enjoyable. I’d recommend it!

nicholas woodeson in the roomSo to the matter in hand, and first off, The Room, Harold Pinter’s first play, written and produced in 1957, a bleak one-act drama where the comic fringes lighten the load of the menace that lies beneath. It feels very much a forerunner of his next play, The Birthday Party, with similarities in its setting, characters, violence and other themes. Mrs Rose Hudd prepares a meagre meal for her husband Bert whilst worrying about the cold weather outside and the state of the roads. He has to go out – but says nothing about it – indeed, he says nothing about anything. Landlord Mr Kidd (if he is indeed the landlord) comes to call, to check on the pipes and the plumbing, whilst Mr Hudd takes to his bed. Later, a younger couple, Mr and Mrs Sands, pop by to see if the landlord is in as they want to take a look at a room to rent. colin macfarlane in the roomLater still, a blind man, Mr Riley, visits Mrs Hudd, calls her Sal (we know her as Rose) and has a message from her father to please come home. Mr Hudd returns, sees them together, talks meaninglessly about his experience in the car, and then beats and kicks Riley into a corner. Maybe he kills him, maybe he doesn’t. Rose is left clutching her eyes, saying that she can’t see. Curtain.

colin macfarlane in victoria stationAfterwards, Mrs Chrisparkle said that she enjoyed it, but she wished she knew what it really meant. That’s the trouble with Pinter. The change of name (Rose to Sal), the confusion over the position of Mr Kidd, the inability to see (Riley is blind, Rose can’t see at the end), the menace lurking just under the surface. All these things must mean something. But, equally, they could mean nothing; other than that which is self-evidently acted out on stage. It could simply be a slice of life, a series of unrelated incidents that just happen in the same location and to the same person, and any menace that arises is merely what we perceive. Personally, I think the truth is halfway between the two. There’s some symbolism at work there; however, its meaning is what you make it.

rupert graves in victoria stationThe Hudds’ grisly bare room is effectively brought to life in Soutra Gilmour’s featureless and colourless set, and, as you would expect, Jane Horrocks gives a superb performance as the woman trapped in a featureless, colourless life, never betraying any emotions unless they’re based on fear. Rupert Graves’ sullen and taciturn Bert keeps his own counsel mainly, one feels, because he can’t be arsed to reply to his wife’s inanities. But when he returns and unleashes his violence on the defenceless Riley, the savagery is real. Nicholas Woodeson brings some confused humour to the role of Mr Kidd, whom we feel is hiding more than is revealing and Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi as the Sands create a fascinating power-struggle between themselves whilst still – on the surface at least – remaining polite with their temporary host. Colin MacFarlane’s Riley feels like a lamb to the slaughter from the word go. It’s a tough watch, and at the end you feel disturbed and despondent at the way events turned out. But I guess that’s the point.

luke thallon in family voicesAfter the interval, we’re in for some brilliant light relief. Victoria Station, written in 1982, is a short two-hander between a taxi operator control and Driver 274, out and about somewhere around Crystal Palace. The controller wants him to pick someone up from Victoria Station. But he’s never heard of the place. In fact he seems to be in some existential nightmare where he can’t recognise or understand anything, apart from the fact that he’s fallen in love with the passenger on board. The controller tries all sorts of ideas to get 274 to buck his ideas up – but no avail. In the end the controller closes down the office so that he can meet 274 and maybe go to Barbados on holiday together. Or maybe not.

 luke thallon in family voices 1Played for laughs, with immaculate comic timing and expression by Colin MacFarlane as the controller and Rupert Graves as the driver, this is a much-needed eruption of comedy joy. Given that we’re watching what might well be one man’s descent into loneliness/depression/mental illness/hell, the play could easily be performed with much greater seriousness and gravity; but making it upbeat gives it an additional strength all of its own. I loved it; I thought it was hilarious and ridiculous, without being cruel. As a short play, it deserves to be much better known.

rupert graves in family voicesThat led us on to our final piece, Family Voices, originally written as a radio play in 1980. Three characters, only called Voices one, two and three, speak of their sense of dislocation and loss. Voice one, a young man, is surviving on his own in some unspecified shared accommodation and speaks what sounds like a letter home; but voice two, whom we presume is his mother, tells us that she never hears from her son. So maybe these letters are never sent, or never received; or maybe they aren’t mother and son at all. Voice three is his father, speaking from the dead: “I have so much to say to you, But I am quite dead. What I have to say to you will never be said.” Those last lines brought a gulp to the throats of both me and Mrs C as we thought of our own dead fathers. Sad and haunting; but also strangely comforting.

jane horrocks in family voicesOnce again Jane Horrocks was riveting as the abandoned mother figure, and Rupert Graves solemn but supportive as the father. Luke Thallon took us on a moving journey as his Voice One character tried to find his way in life but failed. Three related figures with the will to communicate with each other but lacking the ability or the method. I found it very moving.

luke thallon in family voices 2So with the exception of the fifteen minutes of fun that was Victoria Station, this was a very introspective and hard-hitting programme that took us into some of the darker areas of human existence. Fascinating to experience – and also with some superb performances, Pinter Five continues in the repertory until 26th January.

Review – Pinter One, Pinter at the Pinter Season, The New World Order, Mountain Language, One For The Road, Ashes To Ashes, plus five other short pieces, Harold Pinter Theatre, 20th October 2018

Pinter OneBack at the Harold Pinter Theatre for another session of Pinteresque shorts, and an outstanding programme, beautifully sequenced, of nine fascinating pieces – ok, maybe there was one I wasn’t that keen on, but I just don’t think I had the time to pay attention to it. Eight short pieces were crammed into the first half, plus another one-act play after the interval, and a fantastic night of dramatic tension it truly was. I’ve rarely had such a varied and challenging experience in the theatre, on both an intellectual and emotional level.

jonjo-oneillJonjo O’Neill opened the proceedings with Press Conference, a piece Pinter wrote for the 2002 National Theatre show Sketches, and a role which he himself originally performed. To an explosion of confetti that lingers, ironically, in your clothes and on the seats and floor for the rest of the evening, the Minister for Culture is received rapturously in some kind of totalitarian state, and then answers questions about the state attitude to children and women, which includes killing them and raping them (“it was part of an educational process”). It’s so outrageous that you’re completely shocked, but the juxtaposition of upbeat jollity and Mr O’Neill’s excellent performance, means it’s hard not to laugh, even though you hate yourself for doing so. You reassure yourself with the thought “it couldn’t happen here…” but then you look around you at the world today, and wonder…. A perfect introduction to a disturbing evening’s entertainment.

kate-oflynn-and-maggie-steedPrecisely, a 1983 sketch originally performed by Martin Jarvis and Barry Foster, featured Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn, suited up like two overfed and over-indulged politicians, discussing how to carve up the country for some unknown plan that’s clearly just for their own benefit and no one else’s. Maggie Steed in particular reminded me of the way they used to represent Mrs Thatcher in Spitting Image – with Churchill’s suit and cigar – gritty, cynical, powerful. As is nearly always the case with Pinter, the non-specific nature of the threat made it all the more unsettling. Terrifically acted, brief to perform but hard to forget.

paapa-essiedu-and-jonjo-oneillThe New World Order, first performed in 1991, shows Des (Jonjo O’Neill) and Lionel (the brilliant Paapa Essiedu) tormenting a naked, silent, blindfolded prisoner (Jonathan Glew), and reminded me so much of the mental torturers Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party only forty years on. Whilst the majority of their vitriol is hurled against the prisoner, the more experienced Des sometimes challenges the more youthful Lionel about his approach, criticising his use of language: (“You called him a c*** last time. Now you call him a prick. How many times do I have to tell you? You’ve got to learn to define your terms and stick to them.”) Like Press Conference, at times it’s incredibly funny, but the overwhelming atmosphere is one of terror.

maggie-steed-and-paapa-essieduNext, Mountain Language, a 1988 play that Pinter wrote following a visit to Turkey, although he always insisted that it was not based on the political situation between Turks and Kurds. In some miserable military camp, prisoners are apparently taken captive for the crime of speaking the “mountain language”. They are mountain people, the language is their own language, but it has been outlawed. The deprivation and penalties for transgressing this law are severe. Even though the threat in this play is a little more obvious, it’s no less sinister; and, as in The New World Order, paapa-essieduthere is an element of comedy in the interplay between the captors and interrogators, as well as some nonsensical rules that cannot be followed – such as when the old woman has been bitten by a Dobermann Pinscher but the authorities won’t do anything about it unless they can tell them the name of the dog. Jamie Lloyd’s direction brings out the starkness of the situation and I loved the decision to give the role of the Guard to the disembodied voice of Michael Gambon – a very effective way of increasing the “otherworldly” aspect of the play. Riveting, disturbing, unforgettable.

paapa-essiedu-and-jonjo-oneillThen we had Kate O’Flynn performing Pinter’s poem American Football. I think I was still so overwhelmed by the themes and imagery of Mountain Language that I scarcely noticed this short piece. It was written in 1991 as a reaction to the Gulf War, and satirises the action of the American military at war as if they were just playing a game of football. It didn’t, for me, have the stand-out nature of the other pieces; maybe if it had been repositioned in the running order it might have worked better? Genuinely not sure.

jon-culshawThen an unexpected moment of lightness. The Pres and the Officer is a short piece only discovered by his widow Lady Antonia Fraser last year in a notepad; she remarked that his handwriting was quite frail so presumably he wrote it sometime in his final years – he died in 2008. Lady Antonia said she has often been asked what Pinter would have made of Trump – so now we know! This presages the American president so accurately that it takes your breath away. The simple premise: the President gives the order to nuke London. He says they had it coming to them. After a short conversation with his officer, he realises he made a mistake and it should have been Paris. So many questions, so little time. With a guest star playing the unnamed President (I think it was Jon Culshaw) this little sketch is horrifyingly hilarious.

antony-sher-and-paapa-essieduAnother poem next; Death, from 1997, given a sombre but effective reading by Maggie Steed. It takes the form of a clinical set of questions about a dead body that have a strange way of making you think about death and the dead in an unemotional way. A simple, but fascinating poem, which I enjoyed very much, despite its dour subject matter.

quentin-deborneThat led us into the final piece before the interval, One For The Road, and the first time I’d seen Antony Sher on stage since Peter Barnes’ Red Noses for the RSC in 1985. His performance as the creepy, faux-avuncular Nicolas, doing a one-man nice cop nasty cop routine as part of an interrogation procedure, was outstanding and worth the ticket price alone. antony-sher-and-kate-oflynnDominating both Paapa Essiedu’s Victor and Kate O’Flynn’s Gila into nervous wrecks, the most chilling scene was his interrogation of seven-year-old Nicky, their son, played with fantastic confidence by young Quentin Deborne. It was when Nicolas was fingering the neckline of Nicky’s T-shirt you could really feel your sweat forming and your gorge rising. A riveting play with an immaculate performance, and, despite its awfulness, I loved it.

paapa-essieduAll that, and it was only just time for the interval! After the ice-cream and Chardonnay break, it was back for Ashes to Ashes, directed by Lia Williams. Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu starred in this moving and disturbing one-act play from 1996; partly a stream of consciousness between a couple in a relationship, partly a sequence of reminiscences and imaginings, partly a conversation with a counsellor in therapy.  paapa-essiedu-and-kate-oflynnBecause Pinter keeps all the references as obscure as possible, this play can mean all things to all people, but there is definitely a suggestion of families being torn apart on the way to a Concentration Camp at the end of the play. Superb performances – and an exceptional lighting design by Jon Clark that added enormously to the mood and the terror.

paapa-essieduAfter the relative frothiness of the afternoon’s Pinter Two programme, this was an emotional sucker punch that left us sitting in our seats for minutes after it had ended, trying to make sense of all that had gone before. Brilliant performances throughout, but it’s Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu who had the majority of the work to do, and they carried it off amazingly. And, to cap it all, Antony Sher’s nauseatingly superb interrogator Nicolas ran off with the Best Characterisation of the Night award. Congratulations to the whole cast for an awe-inspiring production.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Pinter Two, Pinter at the Pinter Season, The Lover, and The Collection, Harold Pinter Theatre, 20th October 2018

Pinter TwoNo Pinters come along for ages, then, just like buses, seven of them all arrive at once. Well not quite at once; between September just gone and next February. And where better for them to turn up than at the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre? Harold Pinter TheatreI guess after this intensive season of mini-Pinter plays I’ll have to start calling it by its new name. Then some other great dramatic hero will die and we’ll have to rename some other fine theatre, eradicating its history in one fell swoop. Ah well… Mrs Chrisparkle said I woke up grumpy today…. Perhaps she’s right.

hayley-squiresAs soon as I saw this season of Pinter short plays was on the horizon, I booked for them straight away. This is a great opportunity to see some much less well known and rarely performed pieces; and who know when that chance will come round again? Alas, prior commitments mean I can’t see how we can squeeze in Pinters Three and Four, but we caught Pinters One and Two on their last day on Saturday and have Five, Six and Seven to look forward to in 2019. Imaginative titles, no?

hayley-squires-and-john-macmillanThey are least practical titles. Pinter Two, which we, perversely, saw first, consisted of two one-act plays I’ve known since my teenager years, The Lover, and The Collection, both of which were, handily, published together in an Eyre Methuen paperback in the 1960s. The first half of the production was The Lover, Pinter’s 1962 quirky and ironic look at marital fidelity and the games people play within marriage. hayley-squiresRichard and Sarah are upbeat about her regular afternoon visits from her lover, but after a while Richard begins to get fed up and hurt about it, and wants to bring the dalliance to an end. However, the lover, Max, also appears to be… Richard. One actor playing two characters? One character with a touch of Jekyll and Hyde? A sexual fantasy for both of them to keep their relationship hot? Or simply delusional fantasy on Sarah’s part? You choose. There are no right and wrong answers.

hayley-squiresJamie Lloyd directs it at a smart pace, with the characters trapped within the featureless, claustrophobic and above all, pink (for romance?) room designed by Soutra Gilmour. John Macmillan – who also appeared in Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Homecoming a few years ago – and Hayley Squires mined all the laughs there are out of john-macmillanthis weird situation; I found Mr Macmillan also rather disturbing as Max. And this must be the briefest appearance on stage ever in Russell Tovey’s career as John the milkman, proffering Sarah his cream at the front door. It’s a clever play, brightly done; but in comparison with everything else we saw that day, feels very slight and insubstantial.

david-suchetAfter the interval we returned for The Collection, first produced in 1961. I remember seeing an amateur production of this in my early teens and I am convinced they managed to perform it without a hint of reference to homosexuality. Either they didn’t understand it; or, more probably, I didn’t. Anyway, there’s no escaping the homosexual overtones in this superb little production, again directed by Jamie Lloyd. Russell Tovey’s Jack-the-Lad Bill lives with David Suchet’s quietly flamboyant Harry, and is disturbed by an accusation from John Macmillan’s James that, whilst in Leeds showing his latest dress collection russell-tovey(he’s a designer) Bill slept with James’ wife Stella (Hayley Squires, and also a dress designer). When Bill denies it, saying he’s not that kind of boy, we believe him. But James doesn’t. Instead, James decides to spend a little more time with Bill john-macmillanto find out a bit more about him…. curious. Did Bill and Stella sleep together? Will Stella and James’ relationship ever be the same again? Will Harry and Bill’s? It’s Pinter, so don’t expect any answers.

david-suchetIt’s a cracking little play, and once again Lloyd and Pinter draw out both the comedy and the menace that lurks underneath. We’re treated to a mini-masterclass from David Suchet, languorously putting up with the “slum slug” Bill for, one presumes, one reason only; affectedly expecting everything to be done for him, mischievously stirring up trouble wherever he can.  russell-toveyAnd Russell Tovey, too, gives a great performance, channelling his inner Ricky Gervais with wide-boy cheek mixed with just a little frosty petulance. John Macmillan gives a deliberately unemotional and rigid performance as the bully who might have got entangled just a bit too far for his own comfort; and it’s left to Hayley Squires to convince us of the truth or otherwise of her story.

john-macmilland-and-russell-toveyA very intelligent and enjoyable production, which went down very well with the audience. Back tomorrow with a review of Pinter One!

Production photos by Marc Brenner