The Women of Whitechapel at the ENO review *****

Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel

English National Opera, 3rd April 2019

Composer Iain Bell and his librettist Emma Jenkins wanted to call this just The Women of Whitechapel. Some marketing types at the ENO decided it needed to be prefixed with the title of the infamous murderer, charitably I suppose to let the potential audience know its subject. Worse, to continue the tiresome obsession with perpetrator and not victims. For this opera is specifically written about the women who were murdered. The murderer does not appear. Shame then that the creator’s original intentions could not have been fully honoured. Mind you I see that some bozo US deathcore band has appropriated the grotesque misogynistic fixation at the heart of this story by calling themselves Whitechapel. The band are in their 30s. Grow up lads.

I was predisposed to this new opera from the start. And I was extremely impressed with the end result. I see some proper reviewers who, to be fair, know their opera unlike the Tourist, think the opera is lacking in dramatic impact. I disagree. Yes there is no central single heroine to latch on to, there is no narrative arc towards some sort of tragedy or redemption, there are a fair few characters, the overall feel of the piece is dark and it is made up of a procession of set pieces. But that reflects the story of the five women that Mr Bell and Ms Jenkins wanted to tell, (based on scrupulous research where possible as well as some leaps of imagination). For me it was very powerful and very involving throughout.

I also accept that some of Iain Bell’s music and the way in which Daniel Kramer directed many of the scenes verged, on occasion, towards Les Mis style caricature, though this is no bad thing in terms of the immediacy of impact. However the more obvious inspiration might be Britten, Peter Grimes for the tone of the piece, and Death in Venice for the musical colouring. Worthy template. Mr Bell does not have BB’s compositional facility but the mix of solo and ensemble pieces, the set pieces with chorus, the unusual instrumentation, (the eerie elastic tone of the cimbalom to signify the presence of the murderer for example), the shifting in and out of tonal and more dissonant, atonal music, all conjure up a similar atmosphere.

The opera is centred on the last of the known victims, Mary Kelly, superbly sung and realised by Natalya Romaniw. Mr Bell and Ms Jenkins have created roles specifically for the mature voices of some ENO big stars, namely Marie McLaughlin (Annie Chapman), Janis Kelly (Polly Nicholls), Susan Bullock (Liz Stride) and Lesley Garrett (Catherine Eddowes), as well as the redoubtable Josephine Barstow as Maud, the proprieter of the doss house where the women are forced to live. The illustrious cast is further enhanced by the presence of Alan Opie as the aloof Pathologist who carries out the autopsies on the women’s bodies, Robert Hayward as the compromised Chief of Police and Paul Sheehan as the intimidated Coroner. From the current ENO vintage Nicky Spence provides a lighter touch as Sergeant Strong, James Cleverton is a Photographer with dubious intentions, William Morgan a rather underwritten, reformist Writer and Alex Otterburn is Squibby a local butcher’s boy. On the evening I attended Sophia Elton also stood out as Mary’s voiceless daughter Magpie.

Soutra Gilmour has conjured up another striking set, though it is sombre and dark, (and a bit Goth), in line with the mood of the piece, which is sufficiently versatile to persuade as doss-house, pub, street, mortuary and funeral procession for the coup de theatre of the, slightly over-long, ending (in which Paul Anderson’s lighting design, literally, really shines). Martyn Brabbins’s enthusiasm for the score and the commitment of the ENO Orchestra was never in doubt even in the slightly padded passages.

I think the opera makes its points about the callous way that the patriarchal society of the day treats these poor women – the murderer is simply an extension of the more “respectable” men that abuse them – the solace and support they take from each other and their overwhelming fear as the threat mounts. On its own this work cannot counter a century of writing out the victims as the expense of the sick fascination with the male perpetrator, (turn on your TV any night of the week to see that is still par for the course), but it is a brave, ambitious and engrossing attempt to do so and to provide a valid three hours of musical theatre. The symbolism, the Minotaur metaphor, the male chorus poking through the windows of the doss-house, the final ascension, is thought through and adds texture to the naturalism of previous scenes. The more poetic passages in Emma Jenkins’s libretto similarly contrast with the vernacular episodes.

I read a fair few reviews in thinking about this. They were all written by blokes. There were, with few exceptions, wrong about this. Presumably they would have been happier seeing yet another production of that scrupulously unmanipulative tale of female agency Madama Butterfly.

Betrayal at the Harold Pinter Theatre review *****

Betrayal

Harold Pinter Theatre, 1st April 2019

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 7 review ****

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 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 …..