Pinter at Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache/The Dumb Waiter
Harold Pinter Theatre, 7th February 2019
Daniel John Dyer, landlord of the Queen Vic, go to cinematic hardman, fan of West Ham and coke, protege of Harold Pinter and now some-time political sage. There is his youthful mug. Say what you like he’s hard to ignore.
Never haven see the fella on stage or screen before, for me he was simply the geezer who seemed to be the reason why the £15 seat I had rushed to secure for the Pinter season had been bumped up to a whopping £35 for this final instalment in the one-act series. After all, up to know the cream of British acting had been paraded at bargain basement prices to showcase HP’s genius. On this basis I reasoned that the premium wasn’t due to the unreasonable demands of Gemma Whelan, Martin Freeman or John Heffernan, though anyone of these talents might deserve it. Nope it had to be down to our Danny.
Well it turns out he was worth every penny. As, of course, were his three colleagues. But it is easy to see why HP saw something in DD. Of course as Reservoir Dogs style hit-man Ben, holed up with partner, Gus (Martin Freeman), in the basement of an eclectically menu-ed Brummie restaurant, waiting for instructions for the next job, DD is the very definition of typecast. However what bowled me over was the effortlessly easy way he delivered the dialogue. Some, for what of a better word, poncier, actors tend to deliberate over HP’s words, pausing, in actorly fashion, before the pauses, straining a bit too hard to bring meaning to the vernacular.
Not Danny Dyer. He gets stuck in. As if HP’s language were the most natural thing in the world. Which it is. Most people do not talk, even at times of stress, as if they have just swallowed a dictionary. Conversation is direct, vocabulary constrained. That doesn’t mean however that meaning is clear or simple. Far from it. Meaning, especially when visual cues are incorporated, is slippery, complex, confusing. (Remember HP leaves nothing to chance when it comes to stage directions too), Now the last thing you need, or want, is some luvvie baking on about sub-text, but honestly when a playwright puts words that say one thing but mean another into his or her characters, a whole new world of understanding can open up for you, the observer, which you might not normally reflect on in your own existence.. Art illuminating, not imitating, life.
HP takes the everyday, the colloquial, common parlance, shorthand, the idiomatic expression, often archaic, cliche, repetition, surprising syntax, and suffuses it with poetry and buckets of meaning. And not just threat and menace. Longing, yearning, disappointment, fear, anxiety, disgust, dismissal. You get the picture. If you don’t there are countless PhD theses which will explain. As HP said “one way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness”.
The point is Danny Dyer speaks like a Pinter character. Even when he isn’t a Pinter character. And I don’t just mean hardpan menace. As Ben becomes more perturbed by the messages coming down from above, literally via the dumb waiter, he is just as convincing. His awkward distress may take the form of attempts to subjugate Gus, but it is still palpable. Of course, it wouldn’t work without an actor of Martin Freeman’s calibre opposite him. Gus may be the junior partner, and MF may well be the go-to when it comes to affable sidekick on screen, but here he pushes back, no keen-to-please submissive, taking the lead in responding to Wilson, the unseen, omnipotent architect of their situation. Gus questions authority, Ben conforms.
The Dumb Waiter is a bloody marvellous play but these two are equally bloody marvellous in their performance, capturing the ebb and flow before the admittedly unsurprising betrayal. The play was written in 1957, so contemporary with The Room, The Birthday Party and just before A Slight Ache and The Caretaker, though it was first performed in Frankfurt in 1959 before coming to Hampstead Theatre Club in 1960 alongside The Room. Later plays may have more depth but if you want a distillation of the Pinter form then this is it. You will have seen this set-up a million times before – echoes of gangster movie, Beckett, music hall double act – but you will never have seen any other writer or director do so much with it. Well maybe Martin McDonagh with In Bruges. I hope Mr McDonagh remembers HP in his prayers every evening (though I suspect he is an atheist), such is his debt.
From the first confounding response of Gus to Ben’s reading out of the newspaper story “who advised him to do that”, through to the last fateful instruction, we learn everything we need to know about Gus, Ben, the relationship between them, and their relationship with the “boss”, in just under an hour with the action confined to a windowless “cell”. Yet we have no biography, no definitive purpose and no apparent context. And most of the time they are babbling about tea, biscuits, crockery, football, broken toilets and the restaurant orders. That’s Pinter for you.
The Slight Ache started life as a radio play in 1958 and this is how Jamie Lloyd sets out in his direction, per Katie Mitchell’s Beckett productions, with Gemma Whelan and John Heffernan acting it out in a studio, complete with sound effects, before gradually shifting to a more “realistic” delivery. The outsider threat here initially takes the form of a wasp which Edward entreats his wife Flora to trap. It is a fine summer’s morning in the garden of the posh couple. Order is restored until Edward sees a match-seller stationed outside the lane by the house. The match-seller is old, deaf and has a glass eye but his presence annoys, angers and eventually terrifies Edward. In contrast Flora offers sympathy, affection and protection to the stranger. And thus the marriage is dissected.
Once again we descend from classic comedy set-up, here mid-period Ayckbourn-ish comedy of manners into absurd Beckettian existential angst, but all overlaid with HP’s barbed argot, albeit here the accents go beyond cut-glass to finest crystal. Once again Jamie Lloyd has found just the actors for the job. John Heffernan, who will still look fresh-faced in his seventies, lends Edward a cry-baby-ish, patronising insecurity from the start. Here is an actor who so inhabits a role that you can’t imagine anywhere else up on stage. However I thought he was actually outshone by Gemma Whelan who, IMHO, should get herself bumped off in that Game of Thrones and demand a meaty stage role tout suite. It is almost as if the ability to create sound is a metaphor for Flora’s own emergence from Edward’s control.
Yet the master-stroke is actually the third character, the match-seller. Or rather his absence. Most stage adaptations serve up an actual actor, with varying degrees of scary appearance. Not JL though. In keeping with the “radio play” conceit, the old boy is only imagined. Stops it becoming literal home invasion, “posh people’s fear of the great unwashed’. tropes and firmly centres it on the unacknowledged pain and desire at the heart of the couple’s life. Less than an hour to nail everything Martin Crimp has not quite delivered across a playwriting career.
Now I know that some will continue to find HP’s deliberate obtuseness frustrating if not annoying. I sympathise. There are times during this season when I have wondered what the point was and where this was all going. The humour sometimes isn’t funny, the politics unsubtle, the inversion of misogyny uncertain, the repetition of form turns to cliche. But across the seven instalments and twenty one-act plays, (plus all the incidental miscellany), the what, how and why of Harold Pinter’s work has gloriously emerged. It turns out that Pinteresque doesn’t just mean pauses, threatening strangers, cockneys with an odd turns of phrase, greedy toffs, confused women in beds, emasculated blokes and incipient fascism. It is about what lies within us and how that comes out.
Highlights of the season?
- Soutra Gilmour’s sets and costumes. Variations on a set of themes. just like the plays.
- Jamie Lloyd channeling the spirit of HP himself in his direction.
- Kate O’Flynn standing firm against totalitarianism in Mountain Language and then nearly making sense of Ashes to Ashes alongside Paapa Essiedu.
- Hayley Squires showing why she will be a Dame one day. Though I say this second-hand as I failed to get to Pinter Two but I know it to be true.
- Lee Evans coming out of retirement to do what only he can do in Monologue.
- Tamsin Greig. Beth. Landscape. Microphone. That’s all you need to know.
- Brid Brennan, Janie Dee and Rupert Graves showing what is possible even when HP slips a little.
- The line-up at the end of Celebration and regret at not having seen Tracy-Ann Oberman on stage often enough.
- Danny Dyer looking like he has just sh*t his load when the scampi order comes through. And that from Row U.
- The set-up for A Slight Ache.
I shall miss being stuck in HP’s spider web. And I shall miss revelling in acting and directing of this quality. Betrayal still to come though.