With the glorious memories of Company earlier that afternoon still zinging in our heads, it was time to return to the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre for a very different form of entertainment for the evening. We’d seen most of the previous Pinter at the Pinters – unfortunately we had to miss 3 and 4 because of travel commitments – but they’d all been of a pretty high standard, with Pinter Six’s Party Time and Celebration being the absolute stand-out production of the season so far. How would Pinter Seven’s A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter fare against such illustrious competition?
A Slight Ache was written in 1958 and first performed as a radio play in 1959. Flora and Edward are breakfasting in the garden on a hot summer day. After fretting over a wasp and getting confused over shrubs, an old matchseller appears at their back garden gate. His presence disturbs them, because a) they can’t understand why he positions himself there, b) they can’t decide what he’s actually doing (selling matches, obvs), and c) he never says a word, even when they try to engage him in lengthy, abstruse conversations. Eventually they invite him in, and their casual, polite conversation turns to the occasional insult and the downright surreal. Eventually Flora decides the matchseller is called Barnabas, and whilst she and Edward compete for his attention, he remains mute and invisible. At the end of the play, we see the Matchseller for ourselves – and we see that it is Edward, dressed up as a matchseller. Ah-huh.
This is one of Pinter’s deliberately puzzling little plays, with his recurring themes of false names – Edward doesn’t like it when Flora calls him Edward – false jobs (I bet he isn’t really a matchseller, just as I bet Flora wasn’t a Justice of the Peace and I bet Edward isn’t writing an essay on the Belgian Congo), ridiculous place names (the Membunza Mountain Range, south of Katambaloo, in French Equitorial Africa, which doesn’t exist in real life) and, in this case, pretentious wines (Wachenheimer Fuchsmantel Reisling Beeren Auslese – which does), blindness, (Edward has a slight ache in his eyes) and thinly veiled violence. As usual, you get the sense that the characters are courting danger from outside their immediate environment but are too hardwired in their own behavioural patterns to do anything about it.
Personally, I didn’t find it a terribly satisfying play; it just doesn’t go far enough to make its point – whatever that may be. I did however enjoy Jamie Lloyd’s production. I thought it was smart to start it as though it were a radio play, being acted by two clipped-vowel BBC actor-types, seated on tall chairs in front of microphones, with an On Air sign distinctly On; and as the play progresses they leave that environment and start occupying the garden breakfast table in your mind, with just the occasional reminder that it is a radio play, such as when Flora treads on top of a tray of gravel to give the aural impression she’s walking up the garden path.
John Heffernan’s Edward is an excellent study of a pompous and pernickety man, barely repressing the streaks of violence and anger in his soul. Gemma Whelan’s Flora is straight out of Brief Encounter, with an exquisite vocal turn that’s more 1930s than 50s, trying to make herself attractive for Barnabas whilst fantasising about bathing him; whether that’s like a baby or like a lover, is for you to decide. Well performed, and entertaining, but, for me, missing an edge that is more noticeable in most other Pinter plays.
A Slight Ache was really just a curtain-raiser for the long-awaited star-clash of Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer in The Dumb Waiter, Pinter’s 1957 two-hander, which features two gangster-type hitmen waiting in a basement for the instructions for their next job. As in A Slight Ache, the outside world encroaches on to their comfortless, although well-organised, little domestic arrangement, with an unruly kettle and an even unrulier toilet in the adjacent room, an envelope containing a dozen matches thrust under the door by hand unknown; and of course, the dumb waiter.
I’ll return to the play in the next paragraph, but let’s just take a minute to respect that curious entity, the dumb waiter. You may not know this, gentle reader, but my parents ran a village pub, and in 1970 the brewery who owned said establishment decided it was time we had a refurbishment. To encourage the early art of pub grub, they installed a dumb waiter that connected our kitchen upstairs to the sink area behind the Saloon Bar. It was a big, heavy contraption. Two thick ropes worked a pulley mechanism that sent this wooden box, with two shelves, up and down between the floors. It rather blew my childish brain that there was part of the building that belonged both upstairs and downstairs. I was fascinated by it, and would happily spend hours pointlessly sending items upstairs and downstairs just because I could. It linked two separate worlds; when you were in the kitchen, you had no idea what was going on behind the bar, and when you were in the bar, you had no idea what was happening in the kitchen. But you could send these enclosed shelves, up and down, as a kind of fact-finding emissary; ever-reliable, sharing the secrets of the seedy underworld and the lofty overworld. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle finally retired from that pub in 1988; but eighteen years on, the dumb waiter still worked as smoothly and as magically as ever.
Pinter’s Dumb Waiter comes with a voice tube; much more high-tech than our humble example, and providing an even stronger link from that dingy basement to the outside world. Ben and Gus, the nefarious couple, have no idea it’s there at first; which is why, when it suddenly comes to life, it’s a shock to us all; and the random sequence of food orders, that the guys have absolutely no way of fulfilling, is hilarious in its total pointlessness. But whilst they’re doing their best to please the masters upstairs, Ben also receives his orders for the job that he and Gus are expecting. And although Ben confirms that it’s “the normal method to be employed”, it looks like this will be the last job they do together…
The combination of Messrs Freeman and Dyer is something of a Pinteresque dream team. Mr Freeman’s Gus is a nervous, fidgety, inquisitive guy; the type who has to break a silence (and being Pinter, there are plenty of those!), the type who thrives on being reassured. Mr Dyer’s Ben is more laid-back, with the natural authority of superiority and the confidence to wait quietly; it’s he who communicates with the powers that be up above, but it’s also he who sweats the pressure of satisfying the bosses. In civil service terms, Gus is the Administrative Assistant whilst Ben is the Executive Officer.
Both actors lend aspects of their own personalities and style to their characters, so that they’re immensely believable – in a sense you feel that perhaps there’s not a lot of acting required. Mr Dyer, in particular, always has that cheeky, irreverent sparkle in the corner of his eyes, so even when he’s being Proper Menacing, there’s a glint of a Likely Lad in there too. And although there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of menace lurking about the backwaters of this play, it’s performed fully for laughs and the audience recognises it as the crowd-pleaser it’s clearly designed to be. Only 27 performances scheduled for Pinter Seven, so you’d better be quick – it finishes on 23rd February!
P. S. Pinter Seven was to be the last of the season but that plucky little Tom Hiddleston has popped up with a production of Pinter’s Betrayal, which has now been tacked on to the end to make an unofficial Pinter Eight. This could carry on for ages. I think it’s unlikely we’re going to see this one – I’m very happy with my memories of John Simm in Betrayal in Sheffield in 2012 – and ATG have somewhat cynically whacked up the prices for this new production. One can have too much of a good thing!
Production photos by Marc Brenner