Review – Pinter Six, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Party Time and Celebration, Harold Pinter Theatre, 12th January 2019

Pinter SixSo after a healthy visit to Wagamama, (ok, don’t mention the Sauvignon Blanc… or the White Chocolate and Ginger Cheesecake), it was back to the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre for another pre-show Champagne Package experience and then into the delights of Pinter Six, two one-act plays utilising the same cast, both (on the face of it) celebratory in nature, both highlighting social injustice and the politics of class.

party time castParty Time was written and produced in 1991 and presents a party (no surprises there) where people share suggestions, concerns, prejudices, memories; much like any other party really, but there’s an ever-increasing threat outside which we never fully comprehend, but which bursts on stage and disrupts the charming scene right at the end. Jamie Lloyd has created a very stylised production, where all the partygoers are sitting bolt upright, facing us, in semi-darkness, and they step forward and perform in a small space at the front of the stage john simm in party timewhenever we’re overhearing their part of the ongoing conversation. This creates a much less cosy party environment, and a sense that these characters are on display, being judged. It accentuates their individual isolation, as they remain motionlessly unconnected with those speaking unless they’re part of the same conversation; and Mr Lloyd hasn’t positioned couples together, which makes it even more disconcerting.

eleanor matsuura in party timeIt’s a fantastic mixture of the hilarious and the appalling. John Simm’s Terry is rich but lacking in class; trying to impress Phil Davis’ host Gavin with details of the club, and eventually bestowing honorary membership on him, which you just know he’s going to ignore. Gavin golfs, and sails, and hosts parties. Terry dismisses his wife Dusty’s worries about her brother Jimmy, who is part of the outside problem, whatever that is; so whenever she raises concerns about him she makes Terry appear less attractive a prospect for social climbing. party time laughterMeanwhile Fred and Douglas are discussing the use of power to enforce peace, whilst Liz and Charlotte bicker about tarts (not the custard type), and relationships; and Lady Melissa reflects on how life was better in the good old days. Only the sudden arrival of Jimmy at the end, having emerged from the terrible outdoors, breaks the social chit-chat, his body beaten and bloodied, his mental capacity in delusions and darkness. The party’s over.

gary kemp in party timeIt’s a fantastic ensemble performance, from a cast of experienced Pinter practitioners, all immersed in Pinter lore right up to their elbows. We’d seen John Simm in Pinter’s Betrayal in Sheffield some years back; and he, Ron Cook and Gary Kemp all shone in Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Homecoming four years ago; how wise to reunite such a winning team. Mr Simm balances his character’s agreeable façade with his brutal inner emotions on a knife edge, in a gripping and deeply unpleasant portrayal of a worm done good. Mr Davis matches him with a faux-avuncularity that is only wafer-thin; you sense he could snap a body in two with a nod (actually, he wouldn’t do it himself, he’d have trained staff to do it for him). katharine kingsley gary kemp and celia imrie in party timeKatherine Kingsley and Ron Cook make a humorously unlikely couple; and it is left only to Eleanor Matsuura’s Dusty and Celia Imrie’s Melissa to show any element of humanity in this otherwise fake and bitter environment. Party Time may only be 35 minutes long, but its mixture of intimidation and comedy of manners means you’re certainly ready for your interval Chardonnay.

celia imrie in party timeThe second half of this brilliant double-bill is Celebration, first performed in 2000 and the last original play that Pinter wrote. This time we’re in an extremely expensive restaurant where Lambert and Julie are celebrating their wedding anniversary in the company of Matt and Prue (who happen to be Lambert’s brother and Julie’s sister). Financially, they’ve obviously done very well for themselves – well enough for their loud and uncouth behaviour not to cause a problem with the Maitre D’ or the restaurant owner. Russell and Suki are also dining; she once had a fling with Lambert, and when he notices her in the restaurant they all decide to sit together. However, for the purposes of this production, ron cook and celia imrie in celebrationrather like Party Time, they’re already sitting together on one long table and it’s only the lighting flashing on and off over different heads that tells you whose table we’re eavesdropping on. As before, this increases a sense of style and artifice; but unlike Party Time, where you had a feeling of isolation, here you feel that people have been forced together – perhaps under duress. Will sparks fly? Or will everything be nicely controlled by the restaurant staff?

tracy-ann oberman in celebrationAgain, there’s an amazing feel for ensemble work, with split-second accuracy of timing between the two “tables” being a vital component of keeping the play moving. Ron Cook, Phil Davis, Celia Imrie and Tracy-Ann Oberman are all delightfully squiffy and embody various shades of grotesque as they gracelessly trample over everything in life from the comfort of their well-stocked dinner table. phil davis in celebrationKatherine Kingsley’s Suki is another of Pinter’s innocents abroad, with a kindly open heart and a thirst for knowledge, but saddled with John Simm’s self-confessed psychopath of a husband Russell, whom she tries to both impress and subjugate herself. They make for a very entertaining couple.

eleanor matsuura in celebrationAdd to the mix, Eleanor Matsuura’s alarmingly honest Maitre D’, Sonia, Gary Kemp’s painfully tolerant restaurateur Richard, and Abraham Popoola’s hilariously delusional waiter, whose gossipy tales of his close association with all the greats from T. S. Eliot to the Archduke Ferdinand you can almost believe, and you have a scintillating sequence of dramatic highlights that meant my smile never left my lips for the entire play. A fabulous, joyfully funny and satisfying piece that works as a perfect accompaniment to Party Time. abraham popoola in celebrationOf all the Pinter at the Pinters that I’ve seen so far, this is the one I most want to see again. It’s on in repertory with Pinter Five until 26th January, and I very warmly recommend it to you!

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 5th April 2015

Second Best Exotic Marigold HotelAs you may or may not know, Mrs Chrisparkle and I are great fans of anything to do with India. It’s our favourite country to visit, the people are lovely and the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells on every street are enough to stimulate the most jaded of brains; although whilst I am sure there are plenty of eclectic hotels like the Best Exotic Marigold (or indeed the Second Best Exotic Marigold) we’d prefer to stay in an Oberoi or Taj, if that’s ok with you.

Dev PatelWe saw the original film on TV last year. I thought it was charming, heart-warming, gently funny and an incredibly accurate representation of India. I also don’t know anyone who saw it who wasn’t delighted by it. The film was a relatively unexpected commercial success, grossing $138m on a $10m budget. No surprise, then, that they got their heads together to come up with a sequel. It’s been out a while now, and we missed it when it first came to the Errol Flynn; but word reached us that the new film was still delightful, but not as delightful as the original. It’s usually the case with sequels.

WeddingIt’s not vital to have seen the first film, but I think it would help, if only to understand better the characters and relationships behind the names. Sonny (who runs the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a quiet, idyllic but somewhat chaotic establishment, catering for an energetic, adventurous, and retired clientele) is now in a working partnership with Muriel, one of the original clients. They fly to San Diego to seek financial backing from a large conglomerate to buy and convert a dilapidated hotel so that Sonny’s dream of entrepreneurial empire building can become a reality; cue lots of great lines for Maggie Smith about how much she enjoyed America, (not). However, the path of true business never runs smoothly, and a combination of hotel inspectors (or are they?), rival purchasers and the usual shenanigans of the residents of the hotel get in the way. To add to the proceedings, preparations are underway for Sonny and Sunaina’s wedding. There’s an engagement party, and a family party – but with all the distractions and a jealous groom will they actually make it to the wedding day, and will Sonny’s dream of being a multi-hotelier be realised? You’ll know after 2 hours and 2 minutes.

Wedding partyFor the most part, the story is wafer thin and what little there is is overwhelmed by a few additional distracting side-plots. There’s a sequence where Norman mistakenly encourages a taxi-driver to murder his girlfriend Carol, and then spends a lot of effort trying to stop him. As a plot it goes nowhere and I found it rather tedious. The whole “which, if any, of the guests is the hotel inspector” storyline also goes on a bit long and, to be honest, we don’t really care. What we do care about, a lot, is the characters. The film is peppered with some wonderful creations, the majority of them with the first flush of youth a long way behind them, and we really want them to carpe diem and make the most of the time that’s remaining. The on –off relationship (mainly off) between Douglas and Evelyn has you tearing your hair in frustration that she won’t commit to him. The return of his ex-wife Jean demanding divorce drives it home that it’s even more important that they get on with life.

Ronald Pickup and Diana HardcastleAt the other end of the “dalliance” scale, Madge has been stringing along two Indian suitors mischievously simply because she can but realises that when it comes to the crunch neither of them is what she wants. The resolution to this problem, whilst telegraphed a mile off, is beautifully realised. And the character of Muriel has developed from the difficult, complaining old biddy she was into a wise Everyman figure who watches the action from the side-lines. Despite that gruff exterior, she genuinely wants people to make the best of what they’ve got, and not fritter away their time like she did. The dialogue is very well-written and brings the characters to life, and it goes without saying that the cinematography is beautiful and makes you long for India itself.

Penelope WiltonBut for me, three stand-out performances drive the film onwards, and, frankly, you’d enjoy it no matter what the script contained. Judi Dench is exquisite as Evelyn; bold and capable in the world of work but tentative (and hating herself for it) when it comes to love. You can’t imagine Dame Judi putting in a performance that wasn’t just instinctively Dame Judi. Her elegant voice can capture the full range of emotions from self-doubt to self-confidence, imbued with cheekiness or sorrow all in the same sentence. Eloquent and understanding, more than capable of defending herself in argument, but essentially fragile and needing reassurance. It’s a beautiful performance.

Judi Dench and Christy MeyerAnd it’s a fantastic juxtaposition with Dame Maggie Smith as Muriel, dismissive of waffle and impatient with incompetence, never one to pull any punches whilst talking to those who might consider themselves to be her superiors, all the while looking mortality in the face with quiet dignity. Whilst Dame Judi is always Dame Judi, Dame Maggie can be anyone. As a wonderful contrast to her Downton Abbey character, here she is a commoner, with a down at mouth accent and shabby of appearance, but never dull of wit. The third outstanding performance is by Dev Patel who, as Sonny, absolutely encapsulates that tendency of spirited and ambitious young Indian people to deliver outspoken superlatives, massively overhype any project and never let a silence go uninterrupted. His balance of being both deeply in love with Sunaina but also a useless fiancé means we can all recognise aspects of ourselves in his hopelessly ham-fisted relationship. He’s also really funny – and a convincing Bollywood dancer too.

Judi Dench and Celia ImrieBill Nighy is back, still playing Bill Nighy, playing Douglas, stumbling over himself to do the right thing and say the right words, attempting to conceal crestfallen feelings when things don’t work out right: the epitome of middle-aged male vulnerability. Penelope Wilton is spot-on as ex-wife Jean, using attack as the best form of defence in attempting to secure a divorce, giving an appearance of cheerfulness which is as hollow as their ex-marriage. Celia Imrie has her usual knowing sexual predator look on her face even when she’s been sprung, when her two suitors turn up at the same time – but she does it awfully well. Ronald Pickup as Norman and Diana Hardcastle as Carol play a couple going through a hard time but not expressing it to one another, and it’s very touching.

Judi Dench and Bill NighyThe big additions to the cast for this film are Richard Gere as Guy Chambers, whom Sonny instantly suspects is the hotel inspector and therefore stumbles over himself, Basil Fawlty-style, to over-ingratiate himself with him; and Tamsin Greig as Lavinia, ostensibly at the hotel to check if it will be suitable for her mother. For a comic actress of Ms Greig’s quality she is woefully underutilised but carries off her disappointed, shocked but far too well-behaved to complain persona with her usual aplomb. Mr Gere is excellent as Guy, the debonair traveller, rising to the challenge of asking Sonny’s mother out for a meal, dealing with all the attention he inevitably gets because of his looks with refined false modesty. Lillete Dubey (Mrs Kapoor) is slow to react to his charms at first, and a difficult conquest to make, but then goes the way of all womankind when they encounter Richard Gere.

Dev Patel againLike its original, it’s a heart-warming and charming film; it’s never going to count as one of the finest films of all time but there’s plenty of character development and universal truths to get your teeth into. Plus the thrills and beauties of India. What more could you ask?