Review – Pinter One, Pinter at the Pinter Season, The New World Order, Mountain Language, One For The Road, Ashes To Ashes, plus five other short pieces, Harold Pinter Theatre, 20th October 2018

Pinter OneBack at the Harold Pinter Theatre for another session of Pinteresque shorts, and an outstanding programme, beautifully sequenced, of nine fascinating pieces – ok, maybe there was one I wasn’t that keen on, but I just don’t think I had the time to pay attention to it. Eight short pieces were crammed into the first half, plus another one-act play after the interval, and a fantastic night of dramatic tension it truly was. I’ve rarely had such a varied and challenging experience in the theatre, on both an intellectual and emotional level.

jonjo-oneillJonjo O’Neill opened the proceedings with Press Conference, a piece Pinter wrote for the 2002 National Theatre show Sketches, and a role which he himself originally performed. To an explosion of confetti that lingers, ironically, in your clothes and on the seats and floor for the rest of the evening, the Minister for Culture is received rapturously in some kind of totalitarian state, and then answers questions about the state attitude to children and women, which includes killing them and raping them (“it was part of an educational process”). It’s so outrageous that you’re completely shocked, but the juxtaposition of upbeat jollity and Mr O’Neill’s excellent performance, means it’s hard not to laugh, even though you hate yourself for doing so. You reassure yourself with the thought “it couldn’t happen here…” but then you look around you at the world today, and wonder…. A perfect introduction to a disturbing evening’s entertainment.

kate-oflynn-and-maggie-steedPrecisely, a 1983 sketch originally performed by Martin Jarvis and Barry Foster, featured Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn, suited up like two overfed and over-indulged politicians, discussing how to carve up the country for some unknown plan that’s clearly just for their own benefit and no one else’s. Maggie Steed in particular reminded me of the way they used to represent Mrs Thatcher in Spitting Image – with Churchill’s suit and cigar – gritty, cynical, powerful. As is nearly always the case with Pinter, the non-specific nature of the threat made it all the more unsettling. Terrifically acted, brief to perform but hard to forget.

paapa-essiedu-and-jonjo-oneillThe New World Order, first performed in 1991, shows Des (Jonjo O’Neill) and Lionel (the brilliant Paapa Essiedu) tormenting a naked, silent, blindfolded prisoner (Jonathan Glew), and reminded me so much of the mental torturers Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party only forty years on. Whilst the majority of their vitriol is hurled against the prisoner, the more experienced Des sometimes challenges the more youthful Lionel about his approach, criticising his use of language: (“You called him a c*** last time. Now you call him a prick. How many times do I have to tell you? You’ve got to learn to define your terms and stick to them.”) Like Press Conference, at times it’s incredibly funny, but the overwhelming atmosphere is one of terror.

maggie-steed-and-paapa-essieduNext, Mountain Language, a 1988 play that Pinter wrote following a visit to Turkey, although he always insisted that it was not based on the political situation between Turks and Kurds. In some miserable military camp, prisoners are apparently taken captive for the crime of speaking the “mountain language”. They are mountain people, the language is their own language, but it has been outlawed. The deprivation and penalties for transgressing this law are severe. Even though the threat in this play is a little more obvious, it’s no less sinister; and, as in The New World Order, paapa-essieduthere is an element of comedy in the interplay between the captors and interrogators, as well as some nonsensical rules that cannot be followed – such as when the old woman has been bitten by a Dobermann Pinscher but the authorities won’t do anything about it unless they can tell them the name of the dog. Jamie Lloyd’s direction brings out the starkness of the situation and I loved the decision to give the role of the Guard to the disembodied voice of Michael Gambon – a very effective way of increasing the “otherworldly” aspect of the play. Riveting, disturbing, unforgettable.

paapa-essiedu-and-jonjo-oneillThen we had Kate O’Flynn performing Pinter’s poem American Football. I think I was still so overwhelmed by the themes and imagery of Mountain Language that I scarcely noticed this short piece. It was written in 1991 as a reaction to the Gulf War, and satirises the action of the American military at war as if they were just playing a game of football. It didn’t, for me, have the stand-out nature of the other pieces; maybe if it had been repositioned in the running order it might have worked better? Genuinely not sure.

jon-culshawThen an unexpected moment of lightness. The Pres and the Officer is a short piece only discovered by his widow Lady Antonia Fraser last year in a notepad; she remarked that his handwriting was quite frail so presumably he wrote it sometime in his final years – he died in 2008. Lady Antonia said she has often been asked what Pinter would have made of Trump – so now we know! This presages the American president so accurately that it takes your breath away. The simple premise: the President gives the order to nuke London. He says they had it coming to them. After a short conversation with his officer, he realises he made a mistake and it should have been Paris. So many questions, so little time. With a guest star playing the unnamed President (I think it was Jon Culshaw) this little sketch is horrifyingly hilarious.

antony-sher-and-paapa-essieduAnother poem next; Death, from 1997, given a sombre but effective reading by Maggie Steed. It takes the form of a clinical set of questions about a dead body that have a strange way of making you think about death and the dead in an unemotional way. A simple, but fascinating poem, which I enjoyed very much, despite its dour subject matter.

quentin-deborneThat led us into the final piece before the interval, One For The Road, and the first time I’d seen Antony Sher on stage since Peter Barnes’ Red Noses for the RSC in 1985. His performance as the creepy, faux-avuncular Nicolas, doing a one-man nice cop nasty cop routine as part of an interrogation procedure, was outstanding and worth the ticket price alone. antony-sher-and-kate-oflynnDominating both Paapa Essiedu’s Victor and Kate O’Flynn’s Gila into nervous wrecks, the most chilling scene was his interrogation of seven-year-old Nicky, their son, played with fantastic confidence by young Quentin Deborne. It was when Nicolas was fingering the neckline of Nicky’s T-shirt you could really feel your sweat forming and your gorge rising. A riveting play with an immaculate performance, and, despite its awfulness, I loved it.

paapa-essieduAll that, and it was only just time for the interval! After the ice-cream and Chardonnay break, it was back for Ashes to Ashes, directed by Lia Williams. Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu starred in this moving and disturbing one-act play from 1996; partly a stream of consciousness between a couple in a relationship, partly a sequence of reminiscences and imaginings, partly a conversation with a counsellor in therapy.  paapa-essiedu-and-kate-oflynnBecause Pinter keeps all the references as obscure as possible, this play can mean all things to all people, but there is definitely a suggestion of families being torn apart on the way to a Concentration Camp at the end of the play. Superb performances – and an exceptional lighting design by Jon Clark that added enormously to the mood and the terror.

paapa-essieduAfter the relative frothiness of the afternoon’s Pinter Two programme, this was an emotional sucker punch that left us sitting in our seats for minutes after it had ended, trying to make sense of all that had gone before. Brilliant performances throughout, but it’s Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu who had the majority of the work to do, and they carried it off amazingly. And, to cap it all, Antony Sher’s nauseatingly superb interrogator Nicolas ran off with the Best Characterisation of the Night award. Congratulations to the whole cast for an awe-inspiring production.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – One For The Road, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th February 2013

One For The RoadThis revival of the 1985 version (there was a 1979 version too) of Willy Russell’s One For The Road is the first production of this year’s Made in Northampton “Comedy Gold” season and also the last to be directed by the Royal and Derngate’s Artistic Director Laurie Sansom before he goes on to pastures new at the National Theatre of Scotland.

Laurie SansomDammit, we’re going to miss him here. Since we started coming to the R&D in 2010 we’ve seen loads of his work and he is quite astounding. He has two major strengths as a director: the ability to get to the heart of a text and make the words do the work, and an amazing knack of creating an intimate ensemble out of any cast so that they work seamlessly together as one. I did make a plea when we saw The Duchess of Malfi that he should not be allowed to go to another theatre. I quote: “In fact I hope they won’t let him out of the building; well maybe, tagged, and allowed to stray no further than Prezzo’s.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Oh, it was me who said it anyway. But Mrs Chrisparkle and I do wish him all the best success in his new post, which I am sure he will make into one big creative jamboree.

Con O'NeillOne For The Road is an interesting choice to kick off the season, as it’s one of Mr Russell’s lesser known works and, whilst it is firmly set in its era with very 1980s cultural references – well done for remembering the Wogan TV music by the way – the theme of the play is timeless and its message is certainly relevant to 2013. It’s also interesting to see Russell’s favourite concepts surface in this play and to compare where he has dealt with them, perhaps to greater success, in other plays. It’s Dennis’ fortieth birthday. He’s been reflecting on what might have been, if only things had gone differently; and he’s basically gone into depression at the realisation he’s led a “little life” (viz. Shirley Valentine). He and Pauline have moved out of their terrace and in to the new estate (viz. 65 Skelmersdale Lane in Blood Brothers). It’s Phase II as well, you can’t get any more modern or chic – we should know, we only live in Phase I of our development – and in so doing, have almost caught up with their social climbing old friends and now neighbours Roger and Jane. But not quite; Roger and Jane have embraced their middle class lifestyle with open arms, wallets and prejudices; and whilst Pauline is trying to “better herself” (viz. Educating Rita) mainly for the sake of appearances, Dennis is a fish out of water who despises (no, hates) the fripperies of bourgeoisie, like cooking Hachis au Parmentier and regarding John Denver as a musical divinity. He leads his life guided by insightful song lyrics and still keeps up a bit of self-written poetry but obviously that side of him is becoming extinguished.

To celebrate Dennis’ 40th, Pauline has arranged an ill-conceived dinner party for the four of them, plus Dennis’ parents, clearly old-brigade northerners who can’t find their way round Phase II because all the houses look the same and there are no numbers. The parents never actually reach the house, which leaves even more wine to be consumed, mainly by Dennis, who’s already downed a few sneaky beers, and the evening descends into one of those alcohol-fuelled farces where painful truths are revealed and no one’s life will ever be quite the same again afterwards. How very unlike my own fortieth birthday, which was spent sipping champagne at the Shangri-La Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, or Mrs Chrisparkle’s, which took place in a massive children’s play area/ball park. This wasn’t Pauline’s only bad decision that night. They were expecting six for dinner but only laid the table for four. What’s all that about then?

Michelle ButterlyThe structure of the play means the first half mainly provides the chuckle of recognition and the second half the belly laugh of farce; much better that it crescendoes in that way rather than diminuendoes. Jessica Curtis’ stark set provides an insight into a rather soulless existence, where the only sign of individuality is Dennis’ collection of LPs that takes on the appearance of clutter rather than comfort. It all feels appropriately artificial.

I was very pleased when I first heard that Dennis was to be played by Con O’Neill as he has long been one of my favourite actors. Seeing him on the stage in this production, and hearing again his unique voice with its seemingly fragile timbre, reminded me of why he could reduce grown men to tears as Mickey in Blood Brothers. Again his voice is perfect here for the desperate, broken character of Dennis, and he really gets into all aspects of the character – a full blend of both his punchy/aggressive and vulnerable sides. Technically he’s brilliant too, with faultless prop-handling, timing and a completely believable “very drunk” act. His performance gave the play a deep intensity, so much so that at the end Mrs C felt rather exhausted – but in a good way.

Nicola StephensonI very much enjoyed the performance of Michelle Butterly as Pauline, trying to keep up the pretentiousness of her environment, but also failing to conceal her own true background. She’s great at being culturally bullied by her apparently more naturally superior friends and she’s got a very good posh scouse accent!

Nicola Stephenson turns in a wonderfully supercilious performance as the vain know-it-all Jane, patronising her way through the evening with the intent of making everyone else feel small. With an eye for a scandal at any opportunity, she’s keen to fling around suggestions of premature ejaculation without any supporting evidence, and she’s not reticent about forcing herself into Dennis’ locked desk to reveal supposed proof of sexual perversity. When it finally gets opened, I had already guessed what would be in there.

Matthew WaitMatthew Wait’s Roger is a wide-boy made good who’s only partly grown up, with a penchant for playing games and adopting a pompous tone to get his way. His life too could have been creatively more fulfilled but he is satisfied with the self-indulgence that his lifestyle brings. Delightfully smug, and very funny when his world falls down around him.

At the end of the play three of the characters attempt to rewrite history so that they can go back to their comfortable shallow lives; but does Dennis make a break for it, and look upon the dinner party as one last “one for the road”, or does he remain trapped in his middle class misery? You’ll have to see the play to find out. It’s a very enjoyable production, on until 23rd February, with great performances and it’s a fitting swansong for Mr Sansom.

Is it me, or have audiences got really grumpy over the last few months about standing up to let you get to and from your seat if you’re not on an aisle? Mrs C and I have noticed this a lot recently. Not that long ago, an “excuse me, but may I get past” would have been met with a “certainly” and a stand up, which we always reply with a “thank you” to every second or third person we inconvenience; but today you’re likely to be met with an insolent scowl, under-breath muttering, begrudged seat swivelling, or indeed an actual vocalised phrase of annoyance. At a recent performance, one unhelpfully stubborn woman was grabbing hold of a hot drink defensively as if it were an excuse not to move. Mrs C had no choice but to take it out of her hand with an “If I hold on to that you can stand up and let me through”. Theatregoers of Northampton, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and London, you’re all doing it. Just stop it!