Pinter at Pinter 5 review ***

Pinter at Pinter Five: The Room/Victoria Station/Family Voices

Harold Pinter Theatre, 26th January 2019

The weakest of the Pinter at Pinter season IMHO though still well worth seeing. Not the fault of the cast with Rupert Graves in particular on top form. Maybe the plays; The Room is Pinter’s first ever play, from 1957 written for Bristol University students whilst Family Voices was written for the radio in 1981. Then again this hasn’t been a stumbling block in earlier instalments. The Room bears all the hallmarks of later Pinter and a setting familiar from the next, truly great, work, The Birthday Party, and the creative team have found a convincing way to transfer the imaginings of the lonely, young man holed up in a boarding house in Family Voices on to the stage.

The themes? As in the rest of the season Jamie Lloyd and his guest directors have intelligently drawn out links between the works in each instalment which have illuminated HP’s wider concerns: language, meaning, memory, (mis-)communication, anxiety, class, the state, power and control. The dislocation between what we think and what we do. There is often something “out there”, from past or present, beyond the claustrophobic confines of the setting, which might intrude in some way. The two main plays here share a similar marginal, transitory location, and a whiff of Proustian recollection, and contrast the present, minatory situation with some other “safer” time and place. (There must be some auteur somewhere who has the reputation and cojones to bring The Proust Screenplay to cinematic life).

In The Room, Jane Horrocks plays Rose Hudd, babbling nervously, mostly about how “warm” the room is compared to the “cold” outside, to her taciturn “husband” Bert (Rupert Graves) in their one room bedsit in a boarding house. We never quite know why she is so tense, ever after the jagged conversation she has with equally garrulous landlord Mr Kidd (Nicholas Woodeson) before and after Bert heads off in his “van”. Rose is then interrupted by Mr and Mrs Sands (Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi) who are ostensibly looking for a flat and, specifically, the landlord. They describe a blind, black man, Riley, (Colin McFarlane) they have seen in the basement who then enters to deliver a message from Rose’s “father”. Bert returns, rapidly describes his trip out in a sexually aggressive way, and violently turns on Riley. See what I mean? It couldn’t be written by anyone else right? It took HP just two days to create it and thereby change the course of world theatre and subsequently give employment to countless academics. No longer did a playwright have to “know” where his or her characters came from or where they were going.

In Family Voices Luke Thallon is given the task of impersonating the various characters which inhabit the boarding house in the “letters” he composes in his head to his mother, an on stage Jane Horrocks, who complains that her own letters to him are unanswered. These include a sexually forward young woman and a threatening bloke called, wait for it, Riley. Also present here, from beyond the grave, is the young man’s father, whose death hangs over the mother-son relationship, played by Rupert Graves. No major key ending here though.

Victoria Station played here as more “straight” comedy as Colin McFarlane plays a minicab controller growing ever more exasperated by the gnomic responses of driver “274” Rupert Graves. The driver is plainly marooned, lost both physically and mentally, but his fear is played down in this interpretation.

Interestingly the audience at the matinee the Tourist attended, (a packed house showing just how well received the season has been, albeit with a bit of judicious re-pricing), was most animated in Victoria Station. Unsurprising given the laughs, but the rapt attention that characterised say, Moonlight, Landscape or A Slight Ache didn’t seem to quite be there. The difference I think lies in the direction. Pinter Five was given to Patrick Marber. Mr Marber is an excellent writer, especially his original work, and can be an inspirational director, notably of his own adaptations. But Pinter needs something special to really take off and PM is not quite on a par with Jamie Lloyd IMHO. It’s something to do with pacing and rhythm I think though I have no idea how to put its into words. Mind you PM got the HP seal of approval directly so what do I know.

Still even as probably the least convincing of the season, there was still much to feast upon, (enjoy isn’t really the right way to describe it), and some first class acting from Ms Horrocks and Mr Graves. Can’t wait for Betrayal.

Pinter at Pinter 6 review *****

Pinter at Pinter Six: Party Time and Celebration

Harold Pinter Theatre, 17th January 2019

This for me was the best off the bunch so far in the Pinter at Pinter one act play season. And proof that Jamie Lloyd is the Man when it comes to directing the menacing Master. Mind you cop this cast. John Simm, Phil Davies, Eleanor Matsuura, Celia Imrie, Katherine Kingsley, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Gary Kemp, Ron Cook and Abraham Popoola. It is something when probably the least well known on this list, Abraham Popoola, just happens to be, as anyone who saw his performances in STF’s Othello, the Bridge’s Julius Caesar and Pity will know, one of our finest young stage actors.

Jamie Lloyd has profitably emphasised the clear connection between the two plays. Both have a cast of 9 and both are centred on functions in swanky locations. Soutra Gilmour’s alternately monochrome and gaudy sets and costume designs, and Richard Howell’s sharp focus lighting, elegantly reflect this. In both cases a wealthy elite, inured to the concerns of, and detached from, wider society, bickers amongst itself. There is the usual menace, threat, misogyny, oneupmanship, bitterness, jealousy, entitlement and exaggeration that is the HP hallmark but here employed in the service of biting satire. The social class that HP is shredding may differ in each play but the message is the same.

Party Time dates from 1991 and originally premiered with the more overt political satire of Mountain Language seen in Pinter One in this season. Phil Davis’s businessman Gavin is hosting a party where the barbed chat revolves around country club membership, luxury island holidays and past affairs. John Simm’s Terry cruelly bullies his wife Dusty (Eleanor Matsuura), particularly when she mentions Jimmy, her estranged brother. The other guests are equally offensive and vapid in their various ways. Occasionally the sniping and boasting stops and a bright white light is revealed through open doors at the rear. The outside world has plunged into violent disorder, suppressed by the state, and eventually Jimmy (Abraham Popoola) stumbles through the light to deliver a poetic monologue describing this collapse.

Celebration, from 2000., sees Ron Cook’s Cockney villain/businessman (“strategy consultant” in his own words) Lambert celebrating his wedding anniversary with wife Julie (Tracey-Ann Oberman) and brother Matt (Phil Davies), and his wife Prue (Celia Imrie), who is also Julie’s sister, in a swanky restaurant. Vulpine banker Russell (John Simm) and partner Suki (Katherine Kingsley) who Lambert “knows” eventually join them. Restauranteur Richard (Gary Kemp) and Maitresse d’ Sonia (Eleanor Matsuura) alternately schmooze and patronise their ignorant, nouveau riche guests. Waiter (Abraham Popoola) “interjects” to tell tall stories about the literary circles that his grandad mixed with. Here class is the target though some rather darker themes, misogyny, misandry, incest, domestic violence, also emerge.

As elsewhere in this excellent season, the connections that run through HP’s work, and their continuing relevance, are highlighted. The divisions between an elite, defined by wealth, and the rest of society are laid bare. The callous indifference and amoral stupidity of this moneyed, brash, narcissistic class, and those who seek to emulate it, is laid bare. Materialism reigns supreme.

Of course this being Pinter there are times when you are going to fell pretty uncomfortable with some of the dialogue, but, this also being Pinter, you are also going to laugh, a lot, notably in Party Time. Whether you are laughing at, or with, the characters, or at, or with, yourself, is for you to decide.

Impossible to pick out favourites with a cast of this calibre, but if pushed, I would go for Ron Cook and Tracy-Ann Oberman. The latter does not have quite as many lines as some of her equally renowned peers but every one strikes home (it would be good to see her back in some Shakespeare) and Ron Cook is about as perfect a Pinter actor as it is possible to get. Mind you the last few times I have seen him he has pretty much stolen the show (The Children, Girl From the North Country, The Faith Healer and The Homecoming).

One more collection to go as well as the production Betrayal. Even the venerable Danny Dyer, Martin Freeman, Tom Hiddleston et al are going to have there work cut out to top this.

Pinter at the Pinter 4 review ****

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Pinter at the Pinter Four: Moonlight and Night School

Harold Pinter Theatre, 6th December 2018

The Tourist is a bit off the pace what with that the holiday celebrations to enjoy/get through (delete as appropriate). Still three more of the Pinter one act plays season to look forward too as well as the Betrayal with that nice Mr Tom Hiddleston playing the part of Robert (with the actors for Emma and Jerry yet too be announced).

Pinter 4 though brought together a couple of the master’s longer one-act efforts leaving no room for any of the add-ons that have characterised the prior outings. Moreover Jamie Lloyd stood aside here to leave the directorial duties to, respectively, Lyndsey Turner and Ed Stambollouian. Moonlight, from 1993, is concerned with the way memory is constructed, and comes from a similar place to Landscape and A Kind of Alaska, the plays that anchored Pinter 3, whilst Night School, from 1979, is a more “conventional” comedy matching many of the smaller scale comic works in the previous collection.

Now I see that many of the proper reviews were not altogether convinced by Moonlight. The Tourist however actually found it to be one of the most intriguing plays of the season so far, even accepting its recondite character. Civil servant Andy (a testy and crude Robert Glenister) is dying and confined to bed. His wife Bel, (the wonderful Brid Brennan who I had unaccountably never seen on stage until The Ferryman) is, with good grace at his ingratitude, getting on with the job of tending to him. Andy, perhaps whilst dreaming, and in bracing conversation with Bel, looks back on the highs, and lows, of his life, including, maybe, an affair with Maria (Janie Dee) and affection for an old friend, football referee Ralph (Peter Polycarpou). We cut alternately to his two sons, the affected Jake (Al Weaver) and more prosaic Fred (Dwayne Walcott), ostensibly in another flat, engaged in enigmatic, (and on occasion near-nonsensical), conversation and impersonation, which, it transpires, is partly their way of avoiding the death of their father. Their younger sister, Bridget (Isis Hainsworth), dressed in bright red duffel coat, also flits in and out: my guess is she might already have died. She certainly has the best lines at the end.

Lyndsey Turner, never one to make her life easy, lets all of her excellent cast do their stuff leaving Pinter’s words and our imagination do the working out. Which is exactly as it should be. Like I say this is a play about a family constructing and re-constructing their past and present. As we all do. There is no definitive “reality” when it comes to our own stories. We only mis-remember fragments of our lives. HP might not be alone in understanding this but he is pretty much the only playwright whose language can turn this into a stage drama where, whilst the old grey matter is whizzing and fizzing in its quest for meaning, we can still simultaneously care about how so and so and such and such can get from A to B.

In Night School, which started life out on the TV, the versatile Al Weaver (it would be good to see him tread the boards more often) is an ex-con, Walter, who returns home to find his room has been let to the enigmatic femme fatale Sally (Jessica Barden). She, we discover, leads a double life as PE teacher, night-school student and hostess in a night-club owned by the seedy Tully (Peter Polycarpou). Walter, when he is not being verbally prodded by retired East End gangster sort Solto (Robert Glenister thoroughly enjoying himself). or molly-coddling landlady spinster aunts Annie and Milly (Bird Brennan and Janie Dee, likewise), falls hook, line and sinker for Sally, bigging up his gang-land connections whilst falling well short with his chat-up lines.

It is actually quite shocking in its ordinariness. As if Pinter were writing a Pinter play with all the Pinter removed and replaced by Ealing comedy and a dash of Orton. It is East End boarding house in the early 1960s right down to the tea trolley and extravagant dropped aitches.

Pinter may have clicked through the gears in terms of power, class, politics, gender, absurdity and metaphysics across his writing career, becoming part of, whilst remaining critical of, the elite, but I reckon his affection for the early days spent in rep and doing odd-jobs never left him. Maybe that’s the reason for Night School’s relative lack of guile. Ed Stambollouian shakes it up a bit though by having Abbie Finn pounding out rhythms on an on-stage drum kit when she is not playing Mavis and having the prodigiously talented Jessica Barden play Sally with a rudimentary ordinariness. No-one here is special, no-one here is either particularly good or bad and no-one here is judged. I could imagine that in the hands of a less talented cast the humour in the characters could come across as very stilted but I loved it.

I have to assume that Soutra Gilmour had, unbeknownst to me, visited the SE London home of my grandad Sid and grandma Lil in the 1960s, in order to secure inspiration for yet another pitch perfect set. Though not the night-club scene in Night School obviously. Mind you it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there was more to Sid’s younger days than met the eye. All I remember is his bottles of Pale Ale, him telling us kids to “sod off” if we came anywhere near him or his newspaper, a bladder-damaging procession of tea courtesy of Lil, an outside privy, wash-basins and shockingly overt racism.

Moonlight was actually the longest play HP wrote in his last three decades and tends to be dismissed thanks to its awkward and uber-cryptic structure. I disagree and reckon Lyndsey Turner has made a case for more frequent revival. Hard to be as ardent about Night School but committed actors made me laugh and I am very grateful for the opportunity to add it to the Pinter tick list.

https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/12/05/pinter-at-pinter-3-review/

https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/10/27/pinter-at-the-pinter-one-review/

Pinter at Pinter 3 review ****

Pinter at the Pinter Three

Harold Pinter Theatre, 19th November 2018

  • Tess
  • Landscape
  • Apart From That
  • Girls
  • That’s All
  • God’s District
  • Monologue
  • That’s Your Trouble
  • Special Offer
  • Trouble In The Works
  • Night
  • A Kind Of Alaska

Just to be clear I am a fan of the work of Harold Pinter. And now it seems is MS, after he joined me at this, the third instalment of Jamie Lloyd’s season devoted to all of Pinter’s one act plays, and all manner of sketches and fragments besides.

If you not a fan, and actually occasionally even if you are, they will be times when the patience is tested by HP’s particular dissection of the psyche, but this is more than compensated by those times when the combination of mood, language and meaning, or lack thereof since the one thing you can depend on with HP is that you can’t depend on anything, leave you stunned at just how someone managed to right this stuff. 

Of course you need the right actors for the job. Here we had Penelope Wilton, a late addition kicking off with Tess a monologue about a posh lady who had experienced better times, Tom Edden, Meera Syal, Keith Allen, Lee Evans, and the now plainly incomparable, Tamsin Grieg. They were, all, unquestionably, the right actors for this job.

Apart From That saw Lee Evans and Meera Syal riffing on asking “how they were”, as simple and effective as comedy gets, Girls is a slightly uncomfortable monologue, (from Tom Edden), about spanking, That’s All is straight out of the Les Dawson school of comedy, God’s District, one of these weak, one joke (Hammersmith) , anti-religion sketches that HP was prone to, Monologue, one man’s nostalgic conversation with an imagined friend, brilliantly captured by Lee Evans, That’s Your Trouble, verbal sparring from two blokes in a pub, Special Offer a curious short sketch about “men for sale” that Meera Syal got saddled with, Trouble In The Works, a Pythonesque word-play on products in a factory (Lee Evans again hilarious) and Night, a tender duet from an old married couple reminiscing about when they fell in love, which is genuinely moving and had no right to be here.

Now it is really hard not to rave about the Lee Evans when he turns his physical comic genius on full beam as he did here. Especially as he came out of retirement especially for this run. He has form with Pinter, having played Gus in The Dumb Waiter in 2007, and has even successfully tried his hand at Beckett.  But the star of the night for me was Tamsin Greig in the two major works on show Landscape and A Kind of Alaska.

In Landscape, from 1968, she plays Beth who is reliving her past life and loves (specifically an affair (?) consummated on a sunny beach), presumably in her mind, whilst her vulgar, frustrated husband, Keith Allen, bothers her and chats about the everyday before, briefly, losing his temper. The deliberate contrast, and what it says about gender, power and the inability to communicate, is brilliant. This is Pinter as Beckett. Nothing much happens, we end abruptly, and there is deliberate repetition. It originally failed to get a licence from the Lord Chamberlain, ostensibly for its swearing, but probably because the LC didn’t like HP, but when censorship was finally consigned to the dustbin of history, Peggy Ashcroft and David Waller brought it to the RSC stage. There are squillions of other playwrights who explore this territory but don’t even get close to Pinter’s insight, in half an hour or so, in a lifetime of trying. 

Keith Allen, and in this respect this is meant as a compliment, has a natural mansplaining air about him. His waspish manner, which, based on previous stage, film, TV and interview performances, fits the role here of Duff perfectly. I am trying to avoid saying he is grumpy and slightly bellicose, but he is. I last say him playing the older Hogarth in Nick Dear’s The Taste of the Town at the Rose Kingston where he similarly fitted the part like a glove, albeit there as an older man riddled with pain and regret. (And he has the look of the older Hogarth if we believe the artist’s self portrait – not always a given). 

In contrast Tamsin Greig spoke her lines, in a soft Irish lilt, through a microphone, presumably to highlight the contrast between the two “monologues”, but it also ensured we could her every breath as she gave voice to the interior thoughts of the plainly damaged Beth. Enthralling.

Then in A Kind of Alaska (1982) she played Deborah, the woman on a hospital bed who wakes from a coma after 29 years to meet the stiff doctor who has “cared” for her, Keith Allen again, and her bemused sister Pauline, (Meera Syal in a role that finally gave her a chance to shine). AKOA is one of HP’s less cryptic offerings, (though the relationship between siblings and between doctor and patient might now be as straightforward as it seems), but it is still fascinating to see how, with an economic text, the bewilderment of a “child” who has become an “adult” without knowing how or what this means. Once again TG was terrific, confused, guilty, emotional, often in the same line. Two women then, locked in the past, but they could scarcely be more dissimilar.

Once again Soutra Gilmour’s set, here a rotating cube containing “period” interiors redolent of the period when many of these works were written, the 1960s, as well as the lighting of Jon Clark and sound of the Ringham brothers is sublime, and cleverly pulls the disparate strands, and writing styles, together. Jamie Lloyd once again proves he is pretty much peerless when it comes to Pinter. With no “guest” directors the contrast between the comic and the tragic in these works was well balanced and the pacing ideal. I don’t know how much rehearsal time the cast had but this really had the feel of a seasoned ensemble. 

Bring on No. 4. Moonlight from 1993 and Nightschool from 1960 where Mr Lloyd has passed over the reins to Lyndsey Turner and Ed Stambollouian. I don’t know either play and it sounds like these might be more muted than 1 and 3 but no matter, there will be something to take away. And the Tourist, and hopefully new fan MS, are primed and ready for the recently announced Betrayal. 

Pinter at the Pinter One review ****

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Pinter at the Pinter One

Harold Pinter Theatre, 18th October

  • Press Conference
  • Precisely
  • The New World Order
  • Mountain Language
  • American Football
  • The Pres and an Officer
  • Death
  • One for the Road
  • Ashes to Ashes

Just so you are clear. These are plays by Harold Pinter. Did I mention that?

A combination of diary clashes and me hoping for ticket prices to come my way, (always fun playing Economics 101 with West End theatres), meant that I missed out on Part Two of Jamie Lloyd’s season of all of the one act plays of Harold Pinter, (and many other morsels besides). So no The Lover or The Collection and therefore no Hayley Squires, John MacMillan, Russell Tovey or David Suchet. A shame but rest assured dear reader I am signed up to the rest.

Now Pinter is an acquired taste but once acquired is rarely relinquished. The Lover is a two hander about an apparently adulterous couple which sounds like it went down well although, as with much of Pinter the surface misogyny can discomfort, though being Pinter there is always sufficient ambivalence to undermine the apparent premise. For me HP’s unrelenting picking away at human weakness is not gender bound but I can see why others might disagree. The Collection from 1961 covers similar territory in a similar way but with two couples, one gay, sharing a stage, linked by a possible affair.

Anyway probably better if the Tourist focusses on the programme he did see. Here, in the first half, we are in the world of late Pinter, with politics as the subject, and specifically the excesses which can be visited on the individual by a totalitarian state. Some of the pieces imagine more brutal and sadistic scenarios than others but all can be seen as warnings of what can happen when power corrupts. Their very lack of specificity is meant to show that this sort of oppression is only a few short steps away even in a liberal democracy. Not all of the pieces are up with Pinter’s best, and they have never really been, to be frank, universally appreciated even by criterati, but when they work, notably for me here in Mountain Language, they are very effective.

Press Conference is exactly that. A sketch where a Minister of Culture, who was the head of the secret police, responds about the state’s attitude to children. His brusque matter of fact responses – “We distrusted children if they were the children of subversives. We abducted them and brought them up properly. Or we killed them” – is very funny but also very chilling precisely because Jonjo O’Neill’s politician is speaking as if he were right here, right now in Britain. Precisely is another short sketch where Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn play a pair of toff establishment types debating a number, 20 million or maybe more, which turns out is a body count.

Next up was The New World Order from 1991 which saw a cocksure Des (Jonjo O’Neill) and a pumped up Lionel (Paapa Essiedu) discussing how they will torture the gagged, blindfolded and naked man (Jonathan Glew) in the cell with them. No physical violence, the menace is all in the language, which is almost stereotypically Pinteresque in its banal tone. These are almost caricatures of modern day torturers, in sharp suits and, in Paapa’s case, aviator shades. They are trying to impress each other as much as scare the victim. They could be Goldberg and McCann. Taking pleasure in their work. Once again Brits not Americans as in the original premiere. Pinter nails that uninhibited, exuberant arousal that seems to inhabit the cruel.

Mountain Language is an better piece of drama though. Written in 1988 apparently in response to the treatment of the Kurdish people, Pinter actually saw this as a more universal attack on regimes where minorities are victimised through the suppression of language. It is an altogether more expressive piece as Jonjo O”Neill’s callous Sergeant, assisted by the officious voice of Michael Gambon (who took the role at the premiere), and Paapa Essiedu’s Officer, work out want to do with, variously, Kate O’Flynn’s young woman, her elderly woman relative Maggie Steed who can only speak the “mountain language”, Jonathan Glew, this time hooded, and Pappa Essiedu doubling as a prisoner. The prison/detention centre is revealed as a series of rooms in Soutra Gilmour’s suitably depressing cuboid set, all dark walls and utilitarian chairs. No beginning or end but we do get the movement through the set and the contrasts between the characters. And our first proper sight of the mesmerising presence of Kate O’Flynn.

She then bounds on as a US military type for Pinter’s poem American Football written in response to the Gulf War and which satirises the aggressive triumphalism of the victor. This was followed by The Pres and an Officer, a sketch which sees John Sessions impersonating our current POTUS alongside Jonjo O’Niell as the top brass tasked with issuing his orders, here to nuke London, albeit accidentally, reflecting the president’s geographical confusions. I’ll be honest it is a bit soft and one-dimensional but, written in 2008, it is remarkable for its prescience. The presence of a narcissistic, ill-educated, populist bully in the White House clearly wouldn’t have surprise HP who died on Christmas Eve a few weeks before Obama was sworn in.

This was followed by Maggie Steed performing’s HP’s moving short poem Death about the registration of an unknown corpse. Then One for the Road from 1984 the most substantial and well-known of HP’s political plays. It was prompted by HP reading Jacobo Timerman’s book on torture during the Argentinian military dictatorship, but, as you might expect, reveals no specific setting. There is no on-stage violence but the references to the off-stage mutilation of Victor (Paapa Essiedu), the multiple rape of his wife Gila (Kate O’Flynn) and the implied murder of their son Nicky (Quentine Deborne) is upsetting enough. Anthony Sher plays Nicholas the precise officer (“one has to be so scrupulous about language”) who represents the totalitarian regime. He shifts from matey pen-pusher to psychotic tormentor in the blink of an eye though Sher wisely tones down the apoplexy. Think O’Brien in Room 101. And Hannah Arendt’s rule of nobody. Nicholas has all the tools of the state at his disposal, and, it seems, years of experience, but still seems troubled by what he is doing. I can’t quite put my finger on why, though it may be because I am not Mr Sher’s greatest admirer, but this felt a little over-egged to me. It is still a mighty fine play though.

After this varied and variable dissection of the roots and risks of totalitarianism, Act Two ostensibly sees a return to the domestic with two-hander Ashes to Ashes. Yet by contrasting this, here directed by Lia Williams, with the Act One pieces directed by Jamie Lloyd, what we really see is HP’s insights into one theme, the use and abuse of power. Kate O’Flynn is Rebecca who is being “interrogated” by her “estranged” husband Devlin, Paapa Essiedu, but who has done what to whom, and what they each say about how they feel, is even more slippery than usual for HP. Maybe they aren’t married, but lovers. Maybe he is threatening her, or she is mocking him. Is Rebecca describing her dreams? What does the story about the police sirens mean, or the pen? Rebecca’s responses to Devlin’s prompts are oblique to say the least. There are pauses and silences galore and some harrowing imagery. not the least at the end with the apparent description of women, or a woman, or Rebecca herself, being separated from her baby en route to a concentration camp. The whole thing swirls around, and, with acting of this quality, draws you in. In any other hands it would be utter b*llocks but with Pinter the language makes it compelling if ultimately impenetrable.

HP’s reputation and casts should be enough to persuade the uninitiated and/or the curious. Jamie Lloyd can push the envelope a bit far on occasion but he is a master in Pinter. So sign up. If I had to choose I would say 3 and 6. More to follow …..

The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre review ****

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The Birthday Party

Harold Pinter Theatre, 21st March 2018

Look into his eyes. look right into his eyes. Old Harold Pinter didn’t seem that menacing did he? But, as you well know, he created a whole genre of “comedy” presenting the violent and sinister which lurks below the everyday and which still resonates with playwrights today, And some.

The Birthday Party from 1957, which nearly sank without trace, when it came to the Lyric Hammersmith after initially going down well in Cambridge, was Pinter’s second play and first serious outing. (I wonder what I would have made of it had I been one of the handful, literally, of people who saw it in the week before Harold Hobson gave it a rave review in the Sunday Times, which rescued the play and launched Harold Pinter’s writing career.)

The setting and ambience, the parlour of a down-at-heel 1950s South coast seaside boarding house, and the story, revolving around a birthday party for the one and only guest, superficially couldn’t be any more banal, almost a parody of the Victorian drawing room plays still playing at the time and familiar to HP from his decade of rep acting stints. Indeed, for the first few minutes, as husband and wife owners, Meg and Petey Bowles, begin the day with a gentle comic interchange, you might be forgiven for thinking that is exactly what it is going to be. Later, the interrogation scenes, at least if you muted the actors, could have come straight out of an Agatha Christie whodunnit.

Things soon start to turn a bit weird when Stanley Webber, unemployed piano player, hauls himself downstairs and demands breakfast. Lulu, much younger, and one of Pinter’s more sexist female creations, pops in from next door. When the two strangers, Goldberg and McCann, turn up we finally enter seriously Pinteresque territory. What do they know and why are they come here? What do they want with Stanley? Are they really here to do him in? Little trips in time and place, reveals, reversals, people saying one thing and meaning another, and even then you doubt what they really think, banal language that seems to imply something more, malleable “facts”, threats, menaces, power games, bullying, sexual tension, sharp comedy, it’s all there. I will never get over the wonder of how Pinter could conjure up these places in his head. The language is the same as in the everyday world, all the attitudes, influences, attributes, behaviours are recognisable, but it is all a few degrees off centre. It is like Pinter swallowed a whole stack of cutting edge research on social psychology and spat it back out in dramatic form.

When it is acted and directed well it is riveting. As here. Ian Rickson, once again, shows he is a Pinter expert, as well as a McPherson, Butterworth, Ibsen, in fact anything you like, expert. He rendered a marvellous account of Albee’s Goat last year (The Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****) and, to cap it all, he even brings the magnificent music of Polly Jean Harvey to life. The Quay brothers design is a triumph of period detail even down to the bottles of Scotch, and one Irish, which fuel the tensions at the party. A marked contrast to Jamie Lloyd’s on-trend Homecoming from 2016, a hit mind you, from this hit or miss director. I see some proper reviewers have denigrated the “period piece” look of the production. I disagree. This makes the “action” all the more unnerving if you ask me.

Zoe Wannamaker is a memorable Meg, mothering Toby Jones’s puerile Stanley, despite his petulant rebuffs. Yet when he is threatened, by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s fraught McCann and Stephen Mangan’s intimidating Goldberg, he bites back. It is sometimes easy to forget just how good Toby Jones can be when the role fits him. This fits him. I have to say though that Stephen Mangan, who here seems to physically dominate the room, teeth gleaming, offers the best of the performances. The way he barks out, with utter certainty, the cliched “memories” from his childhood is perfect Pinter for me. The way words seem to say one thing but mean something completely different. There is an equivocation about Mangan’s Goldberg as if he is trying to convince himself, as much as those around him, of his real status. Peter Wright, (a revelatory Polonius in Robert Icke’s Hamlet), and Pearl Mackie have less to work with but you wouldn’t notice.

Can Stanley even play the piano? Is it actually a boarding house? Has McCann ever killed anyone? Who’s actually been to Maidenhead? Why can’t Meg sort out a decent breakfast? Was Goldberg actually an orphan? Is this really Stanley’s birthday? What are Goldberg and McCann’s real first names? Was Meg really so p*ssed she couldn’t remember Stanley seemingly attacking her at the party? Why doesn’t Stanley do a runner? Why does Petey pretend Stanley is still there? Are Meg and Petey really childless?

You see the problem is, you start questioning one thing, then another, then the whole thing unravels. And HP looking down on us, chuckling. After all he swore he once stayed in a place exactly like this, with one lonely lodger who lived there because he had “nowhere else to go”, which is about the saddest/funniest thing I reckon anyone could say.

All this before you get to the heavy symbolism which lies in the apparent Judaism and Catholicism of Goldberg and McCann, and their apparent authority over Stanley, though where this is derived from is never revealed. This is why HP saw this as one of his more explicitly “political” (small p) plays. Why gives some-one the right to exert power over another and why is the latter willing to accept? Basic social contract stuff punctuated by the smell of fried bread and whisky and the cries of seagulls. As Petey says at the end “Stan, don’t let them tell you want to do”. Remember HP refused to do National Service as a conscientious objector. Suspicious of all power. And he was an atheist despite his Jewish heritage.

The programme notes from Mark Taylor-Batty have a quote from Pinter which I had not heard before, probably because I am still a bit of an HP virgin. “A character on the stage who can present no convincing argument or information as to his past experience, his present behaviour or his aspirations, nor give a comprehensive analysis of his motives is as legitimate and as worthy of attention as one who, alarmingly, can do all of these things. The more acute the experience the less articulate its expression.” There you have it. Just as well HP was brutally articulate in explaining inarticulacy.

So why only 4 stars? Not because of the play, cast, direction or design. All top drawer. Simply that, thanks to my penny-pinching nature, we were a little too far back to really appreciate the production in a theatre which is a little too cosy at the back of the stalls. There are some plays where that wouldn’t matter. This isn’t one of them.

 

 

 

Cell Mates at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

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Cell Mates

Hampstead Theatre, 10th January 2018

This was my first experience of the work of prolific playwright/novelist/diarist/academic Simon Gray whose stage texts were so adored by luminaries such as Peter Hall, Harold Pinter, (who directed many of his premieres), and Alan Bates, (who starred in them). Cell Mates, of course, is (in)famous for being the play that national treasure, and all round wonderful person, Stephen Fry bailed out of whilst suffering a bout of depression. Simon Gray in turn wrote, somewhat acerbically, about this very episode.

This is the first London revival of the play since that fateful night in 1985. It is based on the true story of the relationship between notorious Dutch-born, British spy and double agent George Blake, and Irish petty criminal and fixer Sean Bourke. After divulging top secret intelligence and details of military exercises to the Soviets in the 1960s Blake had been sentenced to 42 years for treason. In Wormwood Scrubs he met Bourke and they hatched a plan to “spring” Blake in 1966, with help from communist sympathisers on the outside, who then fled to “sanctuary” in Moscow. When Bourke got out he followed Blake to Moscow and then found himself trapped there, by the KGB, with, it seems, the connivance of Blake.

So a meaty story of prison breakout and spy drama. But Simon Gray is less interested in the plot which might naturally unfold from this extraordinary story and more in the relationship between the two men. Both clearly were remarkable in their own ways. Blake, by all accounts, was a gifted, if flawed, character. Schooled in Egypt after his father’s early death, flirting with religious vocation, he joined the Dutch resistance in his teens, was caught by the Nazis, but escaped to Britain. His linguistic skills saw him posted to some hairy places fairly early on in his career before he was turned by a Soviet agent whilst he was imprisoned in Korea. His idealogical shift had, ironically, been fuelled in part by a course in Russian he took at Cambridge. Bourke, as his plan demonstrates, was a resourceful man, with a liking for a drink, and ” a strong sense of the dramatic, an ability to dissemble and an obsessive pride” to use Blake’s own words. Textbook Irish Rover.

We see the conspiracy hatched in prison, the immediate aftermath of the breakout and then four scenes set over a year or so in Blake’s flat in Moscow. So with this back story, and these characters, you might expect high drama. You would be wrong. The tone is surprisingly low-key. The two men clearly come to depend on each other but we do not, I think, really understand why. They find themselves effectively imprisoned once again and I guess we are supposed to reflect on how this came to pass, and whether, in the case of Blake (who is still holed up in Moscow in his 90s), a life of duplicity doomed him to permanent unhappiness and loneliness.

There is some, unsubtle, humour provided by the two KGB agents played by Danny Lee Wynter and Philip Bird, who “observe’ the pair along with maid Zinaida played by Cara Horgan. The two leads, Emmet Byrne as Bourke and, especially, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Blake, do an admirable job in fleshing out the enigmatic couple and Edward delicately directs what is clearly a cherished project for him.

Overall it was just a little too restrained for my liking though. I could see that I was watching something worthwhile but I was never quite persuaded that it really was worth my while. Alan Bennett’s double header, Single Spies, is also by no means a perfect drama, but shed more light, for me, on the curious mix of arrogance, principle and self-loathing that seemed to compel the likes of Blunt, Burgess and Blake on their journey to treachery.