I confess that the main motivation for seeing Mother of Him was Tracy-Ann Oberman. You will probably know her from her many, and varied, TV roles but she is also a feted stage actor. However until now I had only seen her once before: in Party Time and Celebration, part of Jamie Lloyd’s season of one act Pinter plays, where she shone amidst such acting luminaries as Ron Cook, Phil Davies, Celia Imrie and John Simm.
Here she played Brenda Kapowitz, a single mother in Toronto, estranged from Steven (Neil Sheffield), with two sons, Matthew (Scott Folan) and Jason (young Harri Agarwal at my performance). This was not your average family drama however as Matthew stands accused, alongside a friend, of raping three young women necessitating house arrest and the early appearance of lawyer Robert (Simon Hepworth).
Canadian writer Evan Placey based this, his debut play, on a true story but this is no crime, trial or punishment drama with the action all taking place in the family home in the lead up to the trial. Instead Mr Placey focuses almost entirely on Brenda as she oscillates between belief in Matthew’s innocence and her natural urge to protect her son(s) and disgust at what he might have done. She seeks to shield Jason from the truth whilst husband Steven seems to shirk responsibility instead trying to prise Jason from his mother. Matthew is curiously inert, making no attempt to defend or explain himself when questioned by Robert, maybe in misguided loyalty to his dominant friend or maybe because he is in denial. This even extends to his scenes with his girlfriend Jess (Anjelica Serra) who seeks him out despite Brenda’s misgivings.
Now I am not sure if Mr Placey intended to shift the axis of the plot quite so markedly or just underwrote the other characters. Director Max Lindsay, who has brought Evan Placey’s previous plays to the UK, plainly thought the former, and, given the acting prowess of Tracy-Ann Oberman, why not. Her Brenda is understandably angry, with Matthew, with her husband, at times with her lawyer and at the press parked outside their apartment, who we hear but do not see, and who are pointing blame at her. She is determined to hold things together, including her work, but is also vulnerable, as she runs the gauntlet of emotions, some very uncomfortable, that Mr Placey’s text unflinchingly explores. Her frustration with Matthew’s impenetrability is made more acute because of her, I think, previously controlling nature. The end, for both of them, as they face separation, is both painful and tender.
T-AO is brilliant, sharp and affecting, even when the interactions with the rest of the cast don’t quite ring true. This is not down to the dialogue, more, I would say, because of how the characters have been created in relation to Brenda. Get over this, and the dominant acting it required, as I did, and what you have is an intriguing play brought into focus by a commanding central performance. Lee Newby’s monochrome set, whilst good on paper, wasn’t quite up to the task, dramatically, or practically at this performance, and did get a little in the way of the story.
The producers here were also responsible for What Shadows, Pressure and Madame Rubinstein, at the Park, and this comes close to matching them. Whilst the writing isn’t anywhere near that of Bruce Norris, whose Downstate at the National recently similarly sought to avoid passing judgement on the actions of its protagonists, it did, similarly, try to address the reality of heinous crimes though not here accused or victim. I do hope I will be able to see TA-O again. Maybe next time back in Shakespeare.
The Tourist never had a great deal of confidence in his ability in his chosen career. Unfortunate in a world where self-belief is everything, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it was misplaced. Still many of those he had cause to interact with seemed to disagree for which he is eternally grateful.
I would be surprised if Tom Hiddleston has this problem. With good reason. He is a mighty fine actor. And I think he knows it. And he is a gorgeous looking fella. And I see he went out with Susannah Fielding, herself a brilliant stage actor, to wit her turns in American Psycho, The Merchant of Venice, The Beaux Stratagem and Bull, and, most recently giving Steve Coogan lessons in comic timing in the uneven, though still often brilliant, This Time with Alan Partridge.
Until now I had only seen TH on stage in Cheek By Jowl’s The Changeling years ago, missing his award winning outings in Cymbeline, Othello, Coriolanus and the limited edition RADA Hamlet. And since I can’t be doing with all that super-hero gibberish the only film I know him from is Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel High Rise, which is the very definition of pretentious, art-house cinema. Obviously I quite liked it. So it is his TV roles in Wallander, The Hollow Crown and The Night Manager which I know best. He shines. And it is not like he isn’t up against some pretty stiff competition here.
So we come to Betrayal, the conclusion of Jamie Lloyd’s stupendous Pinter season. At first glance taking the role of the cuckold publisher Robert, rather than literary agent Jerry, his mate who has the affair with his wife Emma, seems a surprising decision. Yet he doesn’t even have to open his mouth, just lurking at the back of Soutra Gilmour’s revolve set, for this to immediately make sense. I have said before that there have been a handful of actors in this season who just seem get Harold Pinter’s language. By which I mean they turn it into something natural whilst still retaining that rhythm, whether it is passive or aggressive, that makes it unique to him. Tamsin Greig, Rupert Graves, Al Weaver, Brid Brennan, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Danny Dyer, John Heffernan, Ron Cook. Not always who you might expect but these where the ones who nailed it. To which we can now add Tom H. But Mr H also captures an inner emotional rhythm which makes him very, very special.
It helps that Betrayal, beyond its “going back in time” conceit, is one of HP’s least tricksy plays, indeed it can almost be delivered as the kind of naturalistic melodramas that HP first appeared in as an actor. And that Charlie Cox, an actor whose work is entirely new to me, and Zawe Ashton, who I remember from Jamie Lloyd’s persuasive, if sometimes wayward, production of Genet’s The Maids at Trafalgar Studios, are similarly impressive. And that Jamie Lloyd has pretty much turned himself into the best director of HP since HP himself, (The Homecoming at Trafalgar Studios still ranks as his best). I expect a definitive Caretaker to appear in the not too distinct future given the box office success here.
Betrayal, as I am sure you know, first appeared in 1978, with the affair which it dramatises beginning in 1968 when the play ends, and ending in 1977 when the play begins, with scenes from 1975, 1974, 1971, and proceeding chronologically within the other pivotal year of 1973. I am sure you also know that it is loosely based on HP’s own affair in the 1960’s with TV presenter Joan Bakewell. HP was simultaneously working on his great, unfinished, paean to Proust, a very clear influence. The structure means we already know the what, so that HP can focus on the how, and, especially get to the core of the deceptions to learn the why, of the betrayals. With the sparse plain set, few props and having all three actors always on stage the tripartite relationship is emphasised. What they know and don’t know. What they hide from each other and from themselves. The hurt they cause each other. The victories, defeats and compromises, for there is calculation here entwined with the passions. The key moments, the memories, of the affair, the marriage and the friendship, leap out with uncanny resonance from Mr Lloyd’s minimalist treatment. Robert’s attempts to intimidate Jerry in the restaurant scene and the pain when he finds out on the holiday in Venice, the best single scene of this entire season. Jerry’s needy, self-centredness. Emma’s ill-fated desire for both men. The dependence of the men on each other and on Emma. The truculence of the end of the affair the as mundane mechanics of break up are thrashed out.
As in the rest of the season Jon Clark’s lighting and the Ringham brother’s sound is impeccably delivered. Yet if I had to pick one thing that elevated this Betrayal into something very, very special it is the on stage movement of the three actors – the invisible link between them made visible. The silences are made part of the language and therefore the drama. That’s where Jamie Lloyd has the edge.
One example. The scene where TH is sitting on a chair cuddling Robert and Emma’s child. Whilst she and Jerry are languishing in bed on a stolen afternoon in the flat in Kilburn. Old TH managed to conjure up real tears in the Venice scene but this scene nearly had the Tourist blubbing. In Pinter. WTF.
What next for Tom Hiddleston. Other than the twenty fifth incarnation of this Loki bloke. I can’t wait.
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.
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.
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.
The Tourist’s first viewing of a Sam Shepherd play. A couple of near misses, but this, with Matthew Dunster directing and Johnny Flynn as one of the two brothers was not to be missed. I was less sure about the acting merits of Kit Harington having actively avoided that Game of Thrones and not having seen any of his film work. The only exposure the SO and I have had, (quite literally it turned out with his botty on show), was his Faustus in the lamentable Jamie Lloyd outing a couple of years ago. (BTW Mr Lloyd may not have convinced us in Marlowe but in Pinter, as he is now proving, he is the bee’s knees).
Well as it turns out Mr Harington puts in a more than creditable stint as Austin, the screenwriter younger brother to Johnny Flynn’s maverick petty thief Lee. Or at least we should assume they are brothers. Sam Shepherd’s near-naturalistic text and setting, (apparently he was a right one for stage directions), have led many to conclude that what we are seeing is two sides of Austin’s character which emerge as he is holed up in central California in Mum’s holiday retreat.
As I had anticipated Johnny Flynn, on whom I have a small crush, was magnificent. From Jerusalem, through Twelfth Night, Hangmen, and now this on stage, Lovesick, Genius, his Dobbin in Vanity Fair and his scene stealing Felix in Les Miserables on BBC right now, and then his utterly brilliant Pascal, alongside the equally wonderful Jessie Buckley, (who I also have a similarly sized crush on), everything he does is, well, genius. Can’t vouch for his music, other than the Detectorists score and his contribution in this play, but another sign of his all-round wonderfulness. He has charisma, plainly, but he is able to mould that personality and presence, through speech, expression and movement, to the character he is playing.
Lee is volatile and unpredictable, a restless wanderer, the embodiment of the True West of America, a chancer, but enough of an opportunist to seize his opportunity when Donald Sage Mackay’s film producer, Saul, visits to check on Austin’s progress. Whilst I was a little unconvinced by this plot shift that leads to the inversion of Lee and Austin’s relationship, Austin now getting in the hair of Lee as he tries, hopelessly, to write his own script, as I was by the brawl that follows the arrival of their exasperated Mom, (Madeleine Potter in an underwritten hospital pass of a role), there was plenty in the dialogue and semiotics to keep me gainfully entertained.
Sam Shepherd’s key concerns, the dysfunctionality of family as a metaphor for the dysfunctionality of American society, are common to most of his mature plays. He started off in a more absurdist, comic vein and was a pivotal figure in all that late Sixties, psychedelic, experimental New York artistic scene. However, it is his quintet of plays. created in a decade span from the mid 1970’s, which define his writing legacy. True West (1980), alongside, Curse of the Starving Class (1976) and Buried Child (1979) make up the Family Trilogy, which was followed by Fool For Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985). These are the plays that generally get revived, (there are a lot more besides), and these are the plays I will now need to hunt out to complete my education. I can see that, without the right cast and direction, they might have the capacity for tedium, fortunately not the case here.
The way Austin initially seeks to calm his elder sibling, (they haven’t seen each other for 5 years), to forestall any conflict, eventually handing over the keys to his car. The guilt Austin feels about their alcoholic father. The golfing one-upmanship. Austin’s dismissal of Lee’s hackneyed plot for his film idea. The admissions of jealously of each other’s lives. Conformity and financial success vs rebellion, freedom and moral ambiguity. Head vs gut. The inversions as Lee calms Austin after Saul drops his script, Lee begging the drunken Austin to let him concentrate. Not the stuff of every brother relationship but enough for anyone similarly blessed, (hello little Bruv), to recognise. I can certainly see why some might want to go beyond the straightforward reading of the play, especially as things get out of control towards the end, and the signifiers of the “vanishing West” pile up, but I was happy enough sticking with the obvious.
If I am scrupulously honest the play worked best when Messrs Flynn and Harrington were bad boys, rather than when they tamed their instincts, and I got a bit peeved by the stilted proceedings later on, which come close to questioning the worth of all that has preceded. Jon Bausor’s set and Joshua Carr’s lighting were effective but a little compromised by the Vaudeville’s proscenium and architecture. All in all though, and if you like either, or better still both, of these lads, well worth the trip.
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.