Tag Archives: Harold Pinter

“The Dumb Waiter” at the Hampstead Theatre

First praise here goes to whoever prepared this venue for a socially distanced audience. Instead of depressing signs telling you where not to sit, photographs from previous performances are used on empty seats. What a lovely, colourful, touch. A nod to heritage is appropriate, given Hampstead Theatre’s 60th anniversary celebrations, which this Harold Pinter classic is a part of. And I get to say that I sat next to Anna Maxwell Martin in the theatre… kind of.

Of course, any theatre deserves praise for putting on a show at the moment. But getting to see this short piece, between long lockdowns and tier adjustments, is especially welcome as it is directed by the talented Alice Hamilton. It’s a story of hired killers, waiting for… something. Hamilton’s direction is confident and expert, respecting Pinter’s nuance and drama and appreciative of the playwright but not intimidated by him.

Shane Zaza and Alec Newman in The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre credit Helen Maybanks
Shane Zaza and Alec Newman

Hamilton has secured fine performances from a talented duo: Alec Newman plays “senior partner” Ben, seemingly in charge of Shane Zaza’s Gus. Seemingly, as he knows as little about what is going on as his more anxious colleague. Through their skilled performances, the audience shares their confusion. A vague sense that whatever organisation they work for, and the enigmatic Wilson who is in charge, is being “tightened up” is compounded by bizarre messages the two men receive. What’s going on, and what’s happened previously, is never fully revealed, but glances at the men’s history prove chilling.

The production never overplays the more surreal touches from Pinter. That someone is playing “games” with Ben and Gus becomes more sinister as a result. The sense of menace is aided by James Perkins’ set, the “windowless dump” all action takes place in. We’ve all spent a little too long indoors lately, but under Hamilton’s steely control the claustrophobic tension in The Dumb Waiter builds marvellously – this is a director very much in charge.

Until 20 January 2020

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

“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

“No Man’s Land” at Wyndham’s Theatre

The star billing of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart is undoubtedly the draw for this revival of Harold Pinter’s 1974 play. Masterclass is the term the critics use, quite rightly, and fans of these greats won’t be disappointed. It’s encouraging to see followers of Star Trek and Tolkien take a trip to the theatre, and the crowd during my visit showed a degree of respect welcome in any audience. This is a strong production, and yet, while the devotees clearly had a good time seeing their idols, fans of Pinter may be less satisfied.

Director Sean Mathias has a keen eye for the entertainment value of this play – his strength is in his appreciation of Pinter’s humour. McKellen benefits most. As a down-at-heel, unsuccessful poet, yet “free man”, who unwittingly becomes the guest of a famous literary savant, he cuts a chipper figure and makes the dialogue light, with lots of laughs. Stewart’s role is more obviously subtle. Deadpan humour combines with poignancy in a character who lives in a privileged “world of silk” but is haunted by the past, losing his mind and waiting to die. Despite a few clichéd Pinter pauses, quiet, awkward moments are brief and it’s all surprisingly sprightly.

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart joined by Damien Molony and Owen Teale
Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart joined by Damien Molony and Owen Teale

This is fast and funny Pinter and a pleasant take on the play. But a price has to be paid. As the encounter between these two men becomes more surreal, Stewart can convey tragedy but McKellen’s desperation isn’t convincing. Playing for laughs, the companions who look after Stewart’s character lack menace: Owen Teale and Damien Molony have presence but their roles become purposeless. Pinter’s sharp eye on class and its “quaint little perversions” become rather toothless and nostalgic. Matthias may intrigue newcomers to Pinter, and the performances make the production worth seeing, but this is a flat and disappointing version of a complex play.

Until 17 December 2016

www.nomanslandtheplay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Dumb Waiter” at The Print Room

Time is of the essence Harold Pinter’s play The Dumb Waiter. The one-act work, which sees two hit men waiting for their instructions, plays with timescales and sets out to disorientate the audience. Protagonists Gus and Ben, your average working killers, complain about their employment conditions and are exposed to an increasingly bizarre series of events – including the eponymous serving hatch of the play’s title, from which strange and threatening orders emerge. The tension mounts, hilarity ensues and in true Pinter style, we’re exposed to raw emotion and left a little puzzled.

The director Jamie Glover, primarily known as an actor, has worked with the talented duo Joe Armstrong and Clive Wood to create superbly detailed performances. Wood plays Ben, the “senior partner”, who bristles with tension. Distracting banalities from the newspaper and professed confidence in the “organisation” they work for can’t hide his anxiety. Wood’s red-ringed eyes reveal he is close to the edge and one scene of his starring into the distance, collapsed in on himself, is extremely powerful. His younger colleague, Gus, is the one willing to ask questions – and there are lots of them. Armstrong gives a winning performance, combining a endearingly puzzled look with great comic skill when the couple squabble over semantics. His character might be a cog in a machine, but one with some spirit and the will examine the way in which they are being manipulated.

Maybe it was the delightfully-crafted pumpkins lining the entrance to the theatre, or more likely Peter Rice’s effective sound design to the show which makes the dumb waiter sound like a supernatural guillotine – but this is a scary night. The men’s boredom escalates into fear instantly but the comedy in the play suffers. Glover opts for menace – a valid decision – but I enjoy Pinter’s dark comedy and felt it lacking here. The absurdities of the situation raise laughs but the general air is one of brooding. It adds to the intensity though and the show becomes incredibly swift; there’s time for dinner afterwards and this play leaves you plenty to discuss.

Until 23 November 2013

www.the-print-room.org

Written 29 October 2013 for The London Magazine

“The Hothouse” at the Trafalgar Studios

Director Jamie Lloyd’s residence at the Trafalgar Studios continues with a new production of The Hothouse. After the success of his first show, James McAvoy’s Macbeth, it’s a bold choice in the West End to present this early satire by Harold Pinter – a difficult piece that, if successful, makes the audience distinctly uncomfortable.

Set in a sinister state-run ‘sanatorium’, managed by a group of malingering civil servants whose behaviour descends into something close to farce, the play has an air of general paranoia that Pinter refined in later work. Lloyd embraces the comedy so that the evening becomes entertaining, albeit if it lacks a little in bite.

The cast has a ball. As head of the hospital, Simon Russell Beale plays a blustering buffoon, turning red in the face with superhuman facility, his hands revealing a nervous energy that mesmerises. John Simm’s reserved performance as his facetious factotum is skilled, but pales in comparison. John Heffernan’s intelligently camp depiction of a third staff member takes best advantage of the play’s overblown irreverence. The only one to point out the criminal corruption of the institution and flirt with whistleblowing, Heffernan makes his character complex and frightening.

The play isn’t without problems: the only female member of the cast, a thankless role that Indira Varma does her very best with, is written as sex object that dates the piece and does little credit to its author. For all Lloyd’s skill at farce – and the cast’s ability to do justice to Pinter’s demanding, brilliant dialogue – with little weight given to the horror of the abuse of power, The Hothouse fails to get you heated about the issues of freedom and authority that should arise.

Until 3 August 2013

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 10 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

“The New World Order” at Shoreditch Town Hall

Promenade theatre has been fashionable for several years now. Theatre practitioners often want us to leave our comfy auditoriums and test an audience’s dedication by taking it to new and often less salubrious locations. It’s best to be agnostic about the practice but Hydrocracker has a production of five short Harold Pinter plays, presented as The New World Order, which is worth going a long way for.

Certainly, at least as far as Shoreditch Town Hall. After being frisked and given identity cards, the audience is taken to meeting rooms and then travels down to the building’s scruffy basement, shovelling around its seemingly labyrinthine rooms. The constant theme is Pinter’s nightmarish vision of a state slipping into totalitarianism. The short plays unfold with increasing violence and fit well with the promenade format, but that is the only comfortable thing about the evening – this is powerful political theatre.

Whether The New World Order is more forceful because of this format is an open question. Director Ellie Jones does a superb job: not only in marshalling the audience (although it must help to have a cast playing soldiers who can shout at people) but also in maintaining tension, atmosphere and linking the scenes. Nonetheless, the complicity with the soldiers that is hinted at can’t really grow. You are given the chance to try and help one of those held prisoner but few will, not because they are unfeeling, but for fear of disrupting the performance. Putting actors into the audience never really works – you can sense them a mile off! And while the often incredibly close proximity to the action is intense, it can be intimidating which, sadly, stifles Pinter’s savage humour.

Jones’ direction is impressive because she appreciates the urgency of Pinter’s late political writing. As a recent production at The Print Room demonstrated, these plays are strong enough to be performed with minimal sets, and Jones anchors her work in the script, bringing out a stringent performance from Hugh Ross, who plays the terrifying Minister of Cultural Integrity, and a small but remarkable cameo from Jane Wood. And Jones has a final trick up her sleeve: as one of the victims is released, the audience follows him into the night. This denies the cast its well-deserved applause, yet provokes thought on the long journey home.

Until 11 December 2011

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Matthew Andrews

Written 21 November 2011 for The London Magazine

“One for the Road” and “Victoria Station” at The Print Room

One for the Road and Victoria Station are two short works by Notting Hill local Harold Pinter, and what would have been his neighbourhood theatre, the Print Room, provides a rare chance to see these disturbing, powerful mini-masterpieces together for the first time since their premiere in 1984.

Victoria Station is a Kafkaesque dialogue between a taxi driver and his controller – darkly comic with a sinister twist and only ten minutes long. One for the Road is a violent, sadistic interrogation drama (with a nod to Orwell and its date of composition) that lasts a truly harrowing half-hour.

Keith Dunphy is superb as the taxi controller in the first work – Pinter’s humour is slippery and needs intelligence to pull it off. Kevin Doyle takes centre stage in the second piece, playing the brutal questioner with a spine-chilling wish to be “scrupulous”. Jeff James’s direction retains the intensity of the writing and Alex Lowde’s design, looking like an installation from an art gallery, enhances the bizarre atmosphere.

Both pieces are at once obtuse and complex. It is remarkable that such short works can generate so much speculation and carry such emotion. The evening is one that Pinter fans simply shouldn’t miss.

Until 1 October 2011

www.the-print-room.org

Then transferring to the Young Vic 6 – 15 October 2011

www.youngvic.org

Written 21 September 2011 for The London Magazine