Tag Archives: Harold Pinter Theatre

“Walden” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

It’d be lovely to roundly cheer producer Sonia Friedman’s idea of bringing new writing to the stage as the West End reopens. And bravo to director Ian Rickson and the performers of this first show of the ‘Re:Emerge Season’. Unfortunately, Amy Berryman’s debut play only musters polite applause.

Walden is the story of estranged scientist sisters Cassie and Stella, with Stella’s fiancé Bryan thrown in. Cassie’s just got back from the moon – the job Stella wanted – and is visiting the off-grid cabin her sister has retreated to. You can’t call Berryman’s writing bad – it’s studied, careful and competent – but it is predictable, and the story is thin.

One hour, 40 minutes is a long time to spend on sibling rivalry. With the legacy of their father’s space travel adding little, and a former love interest’s sketchy presence, the conflict between the sisters isn’t firmly grounded. It’s Gemma Arterton and Lydia Wilson’s performances as the sisters that hold the interest and bring conviction to the, admittedly detailed, roles. The only tension, as moments of passion and conflict fluctuate, comes with trying to work out which sister is really the coldest or most damaged… or which is the least likeable.

The near-future sci-fi elements of the play aren’t original (the same old climate catastrophe and mass migration) and nothing new is done with them. There’s a conspiracy theory (of course), this time a nasty Nasa. And a debate over moving to the moon feels tacked on – only phraseology is discussed – Cassie doesn’t like the word ‘Colony’.

It is with the character of Bryan – which Fehinti Balogun does a brilliant job with – that the play really shows its flaws. Too obviously introduced to create discussion – he is an ‘Earth Advocate’ opposed to science – it is solely Balogun’s skill that makes watching the character bearable. Only there to serve up questions to the other characters, which are subsequently ignored, Bryan’s own backstory is tacked on in almost insulting fashion. Frustratingly, Bryan should be essential – it is his “life in the woods” that the action is set in. 

Apart from a cabin, there’s little of Henry David Thoreau in the play that takes the name of his famous retreat and book – surely a missed opportunity? There are plenty of influential ideas in Thoreau that could be explored, but any you might think connect with the play are only superficial. At best a brief discussion of Thoreau allows us to make up our mind about Cassie: describing him as a “whiney hipster” could confirm your opinion about her – I was ready to see her off the planet as soon as she said it!

It’s great to see performers on a stage again. And these are great performers, well directed. But it’s frustrating to see so little done with the stage. Waldenv could easily be a radio play. Indeed, a therapy session might be a more accurate description? More than once, characters ask one another “Tell me what you’re feeling”, before we settle down to a description. Too many scenes are duologues with forced debate.

An unresolved ending indicates how lost the script becomes. Despite the performances, it’s hard to care what happens to either sister. There’s a lot of talk of purpose in the play but too few interesting questions are raised or developed, leaving Walden itself with little point.

Until 12 June 2021

www.sfp-reemergeseason.com

"Uncle Vanya" at the Harold Pinter Theatre

For a play with so much unrequited love among its characters, Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Chekhov’s classic is quite the comedy. The production emphasises the humour in the original, adds some knowing laughs at our expectations of Russian gloom and isn’t even shy to try some slapstick. It makes for one of the most entertaining Chekhovs I’ve seen and deserves huge success as a result.

Toby Jones gets the laughs as the long-suffering titular character, in love with Yelena who has married into his extended family. It’s nice to be reminded of what a natural comedian Jones is, even if there are moments when you might want to feel for his hound-dog character a little more.

Rosalind Eleazar and Aimee Lou Wood in Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Rosalind Eleazar and Aimee Lou Wood

Yelena, a sympathetic figure with the help of Rosalind Eleazar’s excellent depiction, has to deal with Vanya’s attentions while being caught in a love triangle with her step-daughter Sonya and the local doctor, Astrov. McPherson surprises again with a sweetness about the romances that comes primarily from Aimee Lou Wood’s brilliant portrayal of Sonya’s crush.

Richard Armitage in Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Richard Armitage

For both women, scenes with Richard Armitage’s Astrov, while full of sexual tension, contain a pragmatism that takes out some of their sting. It’s an idea that comes into its own at the play’s conclusion. I didn’t quite buy Astrov as a “helpless animal” because of his passion. By the end it seems I am not supposed to; life goes on despite the trials of the human condition.

Behind the humour, Uncle Vanya is all exhaustion and anhedonia – does this ring hollow amongst the laughter? Or has McPherson created a new tonality for us to consider? There’s no doubting the crispness of his writing or his strong vision. Aided by Ian Rickson’s direction, each household member makes a distinct impression and the action is easy to follow – the production is exceptionally clear. The speech is unintimidating: characters even blow raspberries, expletives are used wisely and monologues direct to the audience provide an intimacy that feels natural.

Dearbhla Molloy in Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Dearbhla Molloy

As for McPherson’s ideas, quite rightly, he focuses on the women in the play. Along with Eleazar and Wood, there’s superb support from Anna Calder-Marshall and Dearbhla Molloy. Like most of the characters, Vanya is obsessed by his years – he’s reached the grand age of 47 (makes a man think). But McPherson’s show is marked by youthful appeal. Concerns about the forest (made graphic with the Doctor’s hobby of historical map making) ring environmental alarms that feel topical. And the play’s final words go to the next generation. Sonya’s will to struggle on ends the show on an appropriately optimistic note. There may be only one candle as the curtain descends, but there’s plenty of light.

Until 2 May 2020

www.unclevanyaplay.com

Photography by Johan Persson

“Pinter 1 & 2” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Director Jamie Lloyd has an unerring ability to surround his projects with excitement. His latest scheme is to present short works by Harold Pinter in a six-month-long series of carefully curated and stylishly packaged shows (they really should sell a T-shirt). The project boasts an array of stars – young and old – which indicates that everyone wants to work with Lloyd and offers the chance to see rarely performed works.

The season – and Pinter 1 – get off to a bang courtesy of confetti cannons and Press Conference, which stars a commanding Jonjo O’Neill as a sinister politician. It sets the scene for a first half of plays that show a variety of dystopias. Sometimes the shorts come across as dated, too simplistic and full of conspiracy. Or should we see the paranoia as prescient? A Donald Trump impersonation in The Pres and an Officer, a newly discovered satirical skit, suggests Lloyd does.

Maggie Steed and Paapa Essiedu

The way Pinter encapsulates the most basic fears surrounding the breakdown of society makes them raw and moving. Mountain Language reduced me to tears, with Maggie Steed as an elderly mother confronting her tortured son and forbidden to speak to him. And the tension Pinter can create becomes almost unbearable with One for the Road, which stars Antony Sher as a truly chilling interrogator, alongside Paapa Essiedu and Kate O’Flynn as his victims. The paranoia moves into a domestic setting for the evening’s finale, Ashes to Ashes, which sees a couple recounting an affair and an atrocity, both products of a deranged mind. It’s a too puzzling piece, held together by the direction of Lia Williams and passionate performances from O’Flynn and Essiedu.

Pinter 2 is a double bill of plays that look at infidelity. Both from the 1960s, first up is The Lover, where a squeaky clean couple discuss their affairs over breakfast and perform a bizarre role play. Surely this once appeared more challenging than it does today, and the point seems overplayed – even at just under an hour, the play drags. The boredom isn’t Lloyd’s fault – his direction is snappy and the whole show stylish thanks to the saturated colours of Soutra Gilmour’s designs. But while the piece is a comedy, the absurd is emphasised to a fault. Hayley Squires and John Macmillan perform well, but their characters are flattened, reduced to puppets. In fact, their shadows catch the eye more than they do (Elliot Griggs’ lighting design is superb).

John Macmillan and Russell Tovey

This second evening improves a little with The Collection, where Squires and Macmillan benefit from meatier, if shorter, roles taking on another suspected affair and a confrontation between the husband and the man his wife says seduced her. Russell Tovey plays a wide boy who taunts the cuckolded Macmillan while his flatmate, David Suchet, looks on. Lloyd employs a broad brush again, and the cast clearly has fun, but a degree of tension is retained. The older man and his younger counterpart, from the slums it is said, make for a disconcerting mix of sex, class and violence that’s the real deal.


Until 20 October 2018

www.pinteratthepinter.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Consent” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Nina Raine’s play, a hit transfer from the National Theatre, is exciting new writing. The crafted yet uncontrived piece illustrates how much a talented author can juggle, and Consent is a play full of seemingly contradictory qualities that combine into great theatre.

The plot is a too-simple story of infidelities – a pretty tried and tired topic – as a group of friends, mostly lawyers, make a mess of their marriages. But their motivations, and how their lives change, give the story complexity. It’s essentially a talking heads piece, set around drinks parties and a courtroom drama, but it bristles with an unnerving dynamism.

The theatricality of the law is a blunt point, frequently made, but Raine treats it with finesse. Are the characters’ careers a toxic pollutant of their private lives? Or are the successful barristers closer to their clients than they – or we – would like to think? Raine challenges her – let’s face it – middle-class audience in a sophisticated fashion, laying bare some pretty tawdry emotions with sophistication.

The play couldn’t be more topical. The discussions around consensual sex are only a part of it: the work-life balance of these high flyers is in the news, including their drug abuse, while the obsession with property – and sofas – is tiresomely recognisable. Opposed to this, the battles between the sexes and the classes that Raine highlights makes a claim to be universal: Greek theatre is in the background and makes a fascinating parallel to her work.

Consent is a think piece, cerebral to a fault, with discussions about justice, guilt, repentance and atonement. Yet the play is as emotionally intense as you could wish, with broken hearts all around and characters driven to crazed revenge.

As you might expect with so many abstract ideas, this is serious stuff. But (another contradiction) the play is full of great laughs. Not just dark humour, either – some of the jokes are surprisingly childish and it’s a shock to hear laughs so close to such dark subject matter.

Heather Craney and Stephen Campbell Moore 

The strong material is meat and drink to the talented cast. Stephen Campbell Moore and and Claudie Blakley are superb as the leading couple Edward and Kitty. There’s strong support from Adam James and Sian Clifford as their friends, while Heather Craney takes two roles with equal assurance. A final accolade goes to director Roger Michell, who tackles Raine’s superb text with such assurance. He’s bold enough to bring out all the tension and subtle enough to show each complexity.

Until 11 August 2018

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Casting doesn’t get more exciting than this. For the first revival of Edward Albee’s masterpiece since his death last year, Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill take on the iconic roles of George and Martha, the feuding couple whose frustrated lives on a New England college campus are full of twisted alcohol-fuelled fantasies. Imogen Poots and Luke Treadaway, as the younger Honey and Nick, join them for a party – unfortunates drawn into troubled lives for a fight night they will never forget. The stage brims over with talent for this astounding play.

George and Martha’s “exercise” of combat is frightening. Their aim at one another is practised and potent, themed on his stagnant career and her drinking and adultery. Their “games” escalate ferociously – and they start out pretty vicious. Staunton and Hill convey the complicity between the couple perfectly, who display a mix of resignation and excitement over their perverse sport. The final scene, revealing who is really the most damaged, shows how carefully constructed both performances have been. Yet it is the younger cast who offer the most insight into the play. The 1966 film shows how easily these roles can be eclipsed, but Honey and Nick are more than sacrificial pawns. Potts and Treadaway work to create a convincing relationship, a foil to their elders. Potts does a great drunk (never to be underestimated) and Treadaway adds an edge to his “smug” character with cold ambition and repressed physicality.

Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots
Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots

Yet the production is not an unqualified success. It’s too funny. Yes, Albee’s text is full of wit but here the humour is blunted and misogyny unquestioned. Director James Macdonald hasn’t mistakenly stumbled into his approach and clearly gets what he wants – big belly laughs. But it is a disappointment. Take a moment of physical violence (noting how rare and strange it is) and Honey’s reaction to it: Potts gets a roar of laughter but this should be a moment of raw bestiality. Macdonald has stripped the play of surreal touches, such as George’s ironic obsession with order. Deliberate mistakes, over job titles, locations and dates, are treated glibly when they should be unsettling. Too much of the comedy is treated as sparkling and fresh – it should be fetid and uncomfortable. George and Martha’s “flagellation” is sordid stuff, but here it feels like a drawing room comedy.

Until 27 May 2017

www.whosafraidofvirginiawoolf.co.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Sunny Afternoon” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Another musical to plunder a band’s back catalogue, Sunny Afternoon uses the music of The Kinks to tell the story of this seminal Sixties band. The show is closer to its subjects than similar efforts, as the original story is by songwriter and star of the band, Ray Davies. Whether Davies’ proximity to the project is a good thing is an open question; the show has an authentic ring but leans towards bias. A big hit with Kinks fans at the Hampstead Theatre, where the production started life, the show’s move into West End will be a test of its wider appeal.

As the success of the band attests, this is an impressive list of hits to work with. Even those born the wrong side of the 60s will know many of the tunes. Adapting the songs for the stage is boldly done; an a cappella version of Days is particularly noteworthy. But pop songs and show tunes are different things and the switch to the stage isn’t entirely a success. Too many of the hits are nodded at and shoe horned in. Let’s just say I would rather buy a ‘best of’ album than a cast recording.

That said, I bet the cast recording is good, as the performances can’t be faulted – everyone involved seems to sing and play multiple instruments. The band is led by John Dagleish as Ray, who has an awful lot to do and creates an appealing central character somewhat against the odds. George Maguire is suitably energetic as his brother Dave, the world’s angriest guitar player. Ned Darrington and Adam Sopp, as band members Peter Quaife and Mick Avory, carve out roles for themselves well. There’s also a lovely part for Davies’ first wife, movingly drawn by writer Joe Penhall and performed with skill by Lillie Flynn. Director Ed Hall’s work is impeccable, creating time for exploring the whole band’s emotions, which makes the evening seem weightier than it really is.

Davies is a reluctant pop star and a miserable one too. It’s acknowledged that the woes of a celebrity puzzle most of us; they create little dramatic tension or sympathy. Amazingly, The Kinks were broke despite their success – yes, those pesky promoters and publishers are the villains. The talented Dominic Tighe and Tam Williams try hard as the toffs making money out of The Kinks but their characters aren’t three dimensional enough. More surprising is the poor depiction of Davies’ working-class father. Penhall’s book makes a stab at another story – Davies’ self-representation as a singer for the people, fighting for musical integrity. Though full of potential, claims made for the music depend on how much of a fan you are – which takes us back to square one.

Until October 2016

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Dominic Clemence

“Relative Values” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

A new production of Noël Coward’s Relative Values has arrived in London from the Theatre Royal Bath. It’s another sparkling comedy for the West End, boasting star performances from Patricia Hodge and Caroline Quentin, and with respectful direction from Trevor Nunn that is sure to please aficionados of the author.

This is the one where Lady Marshwood (Hodge) finds her son has gone and got himself engaged to a film star (the perfectly cast Leigh Zimmerman), who happens to be the estranged sister of her maid Moxie (Quentin). It’s simply not on. Hodge and Quentin are spot on, making the most of each acerbic line and convincing as two women who have grown close despite the class divide.

As one line in the play points out, this is a comedy idea not to be sniffed at – especially when Moxie, to avoid awkwardness, receives a promotion from maid to companion/secretary. Cue excruciating after dinner drinks and an explosive confrontation between Moxie and her sister that will have you in stitches. All this is aided by the butler, naturally a clever chap with a philosophical bent, performed by none other than Rory Bremner, who makes a great West End debut.

You certainly get your money’s worth. Relative Values is long and Nunn does little to speed it up. It’s a valid decision but I am not sure films introducing each act, providing historical background, are really needed. Some minor roles could be pepped up. But the whole thing, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set included, drips quality.

Never underestimate Coward. Producers don’t – look at Blythe Spirit  packing them in at the Gielgud. It now seems barely believable that he was once regarded as an unfashionable writer. His observations about class and the changing times of the early 50s, that Nunn takes Coward’s lead in emphasising, leave me cold but then I sometimes feel pretty lonely in these Downton Abbey obsessed times. Coward’s insights into human nature are still pointed and serve his comedy marvelously well. And at the heart of this play Quentin and Hodge make a great team: queens of comedy reigning gloriously.

Until 21 June 2014

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 15 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“Mojo” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Jez Butterworth’s play, Mojo, was a huge hit in 1995 for the Royal Court and its revival at the Harold Pinter Theatre is a welcome event. The première work from a playwright destined for huge success, it’s set in gangland Soho in the late 1950s, with the owner of a nightclub and would-be music promoter murdered. Menace is continually offset by ineffectual gangsters, and then reinjected by mental instability and manic tension. It’s a playwright’s script, full of inspiration from modern masters, with the language poetically reflecting the new craze for rock and roll. A fine plot, superb characters and serious comedy secure wide appeal. There’s high drama, breathtaking suspense and laughs out loud from a sense of humour that is darkly, madly, deeply funny.

Daniel Mays (Potts) and Rupert Grint (Sweets) in Mojo. Photo credit Simon Annand
Daniel Mays and Rupert Grint

For this revival, the focus is sure to be on a stellar cast. And they don’t disappoint. Brendan Coyle takes time off Downtown Abbey to play the man ready to step into his assassinated boss’s shoes, claiming possession of the club while trying, and failing, to control his staff. He has to deal with Sweets and Potts, a pill-popping double act played by Rupert Grint, of Harry Potter fame, who makes a fine West End debut and can’t be blamed for being upstaged by the excellent Daniel Mays, who has the audience in the palm of his hand. It’s just as hard to ignore rising star Colin Morgan who gives a superb performance as another employee. In common with his colleagues, Morgan shows the thin skin underneath the machismo and how these men see the club, with all its power politics, as a home and family as well as career.

But it is Ben Whishaw who is the real star of the night. In the role of Baby, abused son to the murdered owner, and a damaged character who bursts into song and runs around with a sword, he manages to make both activities just as frightening. It’s his finest performance since Hamlet back in 2004 and makes you ponder about connections between the two plays. Avoiding plot spoilers, it’s fair to say something is rotten with the state of the nightclub and, if this insane heir-apparent isn’t indecisive, the court politics and innocent victims ring bells. It’s a resonance that indicates how rich Butterworth’s play is – concerning men, their place in the world and with one another, that run deep. This Mojo is box-office magic that lives up to expectations and really is as good as it sounds.

Until 8 February 2014

Photos by Simon Annand

Written 16 November 2013 for The London Magazine

“Merrily We Roll Along” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Another transfer, another success for the Menier Chocolate Factory – Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along has just opened at the Harold Pinter Theatre. It is the show’s first presentation in the West End, which seems remarkable since it is one of the master-composer’s greatest musicals – a complex work with the potential to appeal to a wide audience. The Menier’s production deserves its new location, showcasing the piece to perfection.

Making her directorial debut, renowned singer and Sondheim soulmate Maria Friedman excels. Under her supervision, Merrily We Roll Along serves as a tremendous vehicle for its leading trio: Damian Humbley, Jenna Russell and Mark Umbers, who star as Charley, Mary and Frank. Just as excellent are Clare Foster and Josefina Gabrielle as the women in Frank’s life. The latter benefits from an additional number, requested from Sondheim by Friedman, that makes a rollicking opener to the second act. With the chorus the production’s modest origins reveal themselves – positively – this is a mature team that sounds fantastic.

The musical is played backwards: we meet our heroes at the height of their careers, but bitter and weary. And in the finale we see the college chums ready to take on the world. It’s a device used to great effect and adds layers of meaning to music that emblazons itself on the memory. The score becomes simpler as the evening progresses, but feels richer with each number – a magical trick to pull off.

Nothing is lost in this production. The performances make the most of the narrative device of hindsight, but keep it sincere and never gimmicky. Merrily We Roll Along is clever stuff but it’s intelligent not pompous. All in all, it’s a brilliant piece that mustn’t be missed.

Until 25 July 2013

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 2 May 2013 for The London Magazine

“Old Times” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

The scenario is straightforward: a woman visits her old, now married, friend after many years. The exposition less so. As the three reminisce, memories become distorted and history manipulated, as they battle for supremacy in their accounts of the past. Old Times is a fascinating exploration of relationships and has a mysterious edge, it keeps the truth about this trio hidden, and as a result this play is as gripping as it is intelligent.

Director Ian Rickson is experienced with Harold Pinter’s work, and it shows. The writer loved triangular relationships, he was a master with them, and this skill is matched in a careful, rich, production. The acting is intense, intentionally affected, with every word and gesture full of potential: the possibility of a laugh or a slap. The dialogue is a constant competition, and the heavyweight cast – Kristin Scott Thomas, Lia Williams and Rufus Sewell – all excel at it. Each manages to traverse the fine line between humour and suspense that is peculiar to Pinter. It’s a surprise to see how much fun they seem to have. Sewell brings an impishness to his role, at times camp, as well as the requisite menace as his character tries to dominate the group. His development into what Pinter described as “a man defeated by women” is a huge achievement. Scott Thomas and Williams bring real charge and their every physical interaction bristles with sexual tension.

A common theory about Old Times is that the two actresses play different sides of the same person, a concept given weight here by Scott Thomas and Williams alternating their roles. But some (or all?) of the characters might be dead, in some kind of Satre-esque Hell, or they might just be plain silly with some peculiar kinks going on. Whatever your idea Old Times is always captivating.

For my money this is a problem play that you aren’t supposed to solve. The wonder of it is in its construction, like the dynamics of the relationships that it explores – it’s enough to see these picked apart and rebuilt over and over. Pinter toys with the audience. The joy of Rickson’s production is to see that game played so well.

Until 6 April 2013

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 4 February 2013 for The London Magazine