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.

Girl From the North Country review ****

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Girl From the North Country

The Old Vic, 20th September 2017

(Girl From the North Country is transferring to the Noel Coward Theatre from 29th Dec 2017 through to 24th Mar 2018)

I am afraid there is a bit of a rant coming. If the Old Vic is going to fill matinee performances with teenage schoolkids can it please find a way to get them to shut up during the performance. I can just about deal with the Old Vic’s kettle-ing of the audience into the tiny foyer, the toilet squeezes (and I am a bloke – the ladies queue looks worse), the sometimes loose productions let down by under-rehearsal, the leg-room in parts of the Lilian Baylis Circle, the sound quality in parts of the stalls and the occasionally grasping approach to interval scheduling. Why? Because it is the Old Vic, a commercial theatre with no subsidy that does its level best to bring together the best creatives with classic plays and important new works. And it is a big space to fill. And, to be fair, they are doing something about the layout.

Now pitching up at matinees here and at the Young Vic is going to mean schoolkids. And by and large that is a brilliant thing. Watching some young-uns relax into the Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Midsummer Night Dream earlier in the year was a joy to behold. A bit of cacophony before the curtain rise, some fidgeting, the odd screen flicker, maybe even one or two whispers is normally a fair exchange for the audible gasps or whoops when something really exciting happens on stage. But what I could not stomach here was a trio of show-offs pointedly stage-whispering throughout. Too loud and frequent to ignore. Couldn’t find a teacher/TA to gently vent fury so ended up seething.

And thus my journey to grumpy old man is complete.

Anyway it meant that my enjoyment of Girl From the North Country was compromised. Which is a shame. Because as the remaining full houses and official and audience reviews suggest, it is very very good. I went with the SO as a replacement for BUD, who I had attempted to rope in, knowing full well that he would be enmeshed instead in a world of finance. Now the SO is famed in our house for her dislike of “musical theatre” and for eschewing any information in advance about what she will be seeing in the theatre. So having failed to gauge any reaction during the first half from her usual Sphinx-like gaze (and having myself been focused on the stage itself whilst trying to zone out the offending youths) I waited with bated breath for her verdict. “It is good – I am enjoying it”. I was tempted to insert the word “really” before “good” or “enjoying” in the previous sentence but that would imply a level of rapture that the SO rarely attains. in fact in the last 5 years of theatre going only The Ferryman, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet and Hytner’s NT Othello claimed a “really” good accolade.

Anyway the point is that this play with music really works. It is no surprise that writer Conor McPherson’s text is a delight. This is the man who delights in story-telling from a theatrical culture that does likewise. The setting, a guest house in Duluth, Minnesota (the birth-place of Bob Dylan) in 1934 as the US is emerging from the Great Depression, lends itself perfectly to this tableau of interweaving narratives. The characters are one rung up from the completely dispossessed, and the Crash and the ensuing credit collapse and failed harvests are swinging into the rear view mirror, but these characters still have next to nothing and are scraping around for the means to live.

Sorry another aside. If you ever get a chance read the novel Duluth by Gore Vidal which uses the city as a starting point for a brilliantly structured flight of fancy with layers of meaning and sharp satire. As usual Mr Vidal was decades ahead of the zeitgeist. And now I see there is a revival of his play, The Best Man, about to tour. I hope the production does it justice as the text (and film adaptation with Henry Fonda in the lead) shows a play with real relevance to US politics today, (though at the time of writing Vidal’s acerbic wit was aimed at Nixon, the Kennedys and McCarthy). That nice Martin Shaw will take the lead role and Simon Evans will direct (a wise choice given his recent Arturo Ui at the Donmar). I would definitely gives this a viewing.

Anyway back to the matter in hand. Now there is a big Bob Dylan shaped whole in my life. I have tried half-heartedly to fill it but have never really been persuaded. Seeing and hearing this might have changed my mind, but if it eventually doesn’t that is no judgement on the 20 songs here. For in the context of the production the music and lyrics were a perfect fit. There is no particular attempt to make lyrics echo plot or vice versa. This is a play with songs (some partial, some reprised and most realised with standing microphones) and not a musical. No jazz hands, fisting clenching or “woe is me” ballads. Just a procession of interludes where one or more of the characters plunder Mr Dylan’s back catalogue (across the decades so not just the obvious early folk-y/bluegrass-y stuff) accompanied by a band playing only instruments of the Depression years period. (Hats off to musicians, Alan Berry, Charlie Brown, Pete Callard and Don Richardson). The arrangements from Simon Hale are very satisfying, the lyrics are self-evidently beautiful and the performances pitch perfect (emotionally I mean – obviously some of the cast are better singers than others). Particular favourites for me were Slow Train, Jokerman, Hurricane, You Ain’t Going Nowhere and Make You Feel My Love. And the diminutive Shirley Henderson belting out Like a Rolling Stone.

Mr McPherson, who directs here as well, an eminently sensible decision given the structure of the work, lets the characters emerge with a sparse but emotionally affecting text. The whole play is only just over a couple of hours. Strip out the music and maybe there is 90 minutes of drama. Yet there are 13 named characters. We get to know all of them and their stories though. That alone is a remarkable achievement.

Ciaran Hinds plays the owner of the guesthouse Nick Laine. A big man whose dreams were crushed a long time ago. Last time we saw Mr Hinds he was a curiously lifeless Claudius in the Cumberbatch Hamlet. Here though he is what he should be. Wife Elizabeth has long since retreated into her own world but her delusions do not stop her seeing the essence of what is going on around her. Shirley Henderson (whom I adore) is maybe a tiny bit over the top but her unravelled self works as metaphor for America in these years. Son Gene, played by telly star, Sam Reid yearns to write but likes the whisky a bit much. Again a stock character, true, but not a stereotype. Adopted daughter Marianne, played by Sheila Atim, is black and hugs the guest-house for fear of attack. Nick would like to marry her off to elderly shop-owner Mr Perry (Jim Norton) but she resists, fearing a life of unhappiness and frustration. Katherine Draper (the excellent Claudia Jolly) is passing through and has hopes of an inheritance which will let her set up a business with Nick with whom she is having an affair. Yet Nick will never leave Elizabeth and, anyway, Katherine’s financial salvation vanishes into thin air.

A couple of cons then crash the guesthouse, Joe Scott (Arinze Kene who I need to keep tabs on) a good man, an ex-boxer, who woos Marianne, and “Reverend” Meadows, (a suitably sly Michael Schaeffer), a self-styled preacher and bible seller, who is up to no good. We are also joined by the bankrupt and broken Burke family (moving performances from Stanley Townsend and Bronagh Gallagher) whose son Elias (Jack Shalloo) has an intellectual disability. And to top it off we have the mighty Ron Cook as Dr Walker, who acts as narrator to add context, Mrs Nielsen (Debbie Kurup) and a fine ensemble (Kirsty Malpass, Tome Peters, Karl Queensborough) to add depth to the chorus. Overall all then a busy stage but the scene changes were deftly handled.

Now if I had a small misgiving, (aside from the babbling youth), it would be that the structure and length of the play constrains any real plot development. As I say we get to “know” these characters and understand their dreams and frustrations but, all up, only a few things actually happen. No matter given the sublime spell that the dialogue, music and lyrics help to create, but I think this could actually have done with being a little longer (a rare request from the Tourist) to expand the stories of the Laine and Burke families in particular, and maybe heighten the drama. I also think that when this is revived, (the rest of the run is sold out I think), as it surely will be, an outdoor setting, on a summer’s evening, might turn it into magic.

Anyway,whilst maybe not quite up there with Mr McPherson’s The Weir on the theatrical bucket list, this is a play with music that should be seen. Even, or maybe especially, if you are not a Dylan devotee. Remember it was the recalcitrant Nobel Prize winner who approached Mr McPherson and attached no strings to the project. Clearly he knew that justice would be done to his poetry (though it seems the old curmudgeon hasn’t seen it yet).