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 – No Man’s Land, Wyndham’s Theatre, 22nd October 2016

No Man's LandI remember when No Man’s Land first hit the stage back in 1975. It was the first new Pinter to appear after I first started reading him and seeing his plays. We’d read The Caretaker at school. I’d seen The Collection and The Lover as an amateur production in 1973. I was impressed with Pinter’s gifts as a director over the years, enjoying his London productions of the Simon Gray plays Otherwise Engaged, The Rear Column, Close of Play and Quatermaine’s Terms. But it wasn’t until four years ago that I actually first saw a professional production of a Pinter play – Betrayal, at the Sheffield Crucible. There’s a lot of ground to make up.

Original No Man's LandThat’s one of the reasons I leapt at the chance to book to see No Man’s Land when it first came on sale many months ago. I always think of it in terms of Gielgud and Richardson (both of whom I was lucky to see in other productions) and it struck me that the casting of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was about as darn perfect as it could get. So, given the fact that Sir Patrick was off sick (forbidden to take to the stage by his doctor) with a throat infection, I’m surprised how well the whole audience (ourselves included) took the news that the role of Hirst would be played by Mr Andrew Jarvis. No pressure on him, then. But sometimes having an understudy in the role can really spice up the entire performance of the play. It’s not going to go precisely the same way that it normally does, with all four regular members of the cast on board. There will be changes – everyone will have to think on their feet a bit more. There’s a seat-of-pants edge to it.

ian-mckellen-and-patrick-stewartBut first: how does the play stand the test of time forty years or so since it was written? Extremely well, in my opinion. Perhaps more than most Pinter plays, it’s not obvious what’s happening. Usually, I think the best way to take Pinter is at face value. Don’t try to read “a meaning” into what you see and hear – the meaning is no more, or less, than what is acted on the stage. Hirst lives near Hampstead Heath and he appears to have met Spooner whilst out walking. Spooner has come back to his place to join him for some drinks. They’re both arts aficionados, and seem to have a lot in common. Spooner is talkative, Hirst taciturn. patrick-stewartThey both drink vast quantities of whisky. Eventually (drunk? defeated?) Hirst crawls out of the room. Briggs and Foster, two younger men, come in and take part in an elaborate conversation with Spooner, involving hinted relationships and veiled threats. As the first act curtain falls, it looks as though Foster is going to make a move towards Spooner which might be one of physical or sexual violence; or maybe medical intervention.

ian-mckellenThe more I think about the play, the more I feel that Hirst and Spooner are imprisoned in some form of institution. Spooner insists to Hirst that he is a free man, which causes Hirst to reply: “it’s a long time since we had a free man in this house.” Spooner is locked in the room all night – doctor’s orders, says Briggs. Hirst threatens to dismiss Briggs, but he won’t leave, because he doesn’t have the authority. Briggs and Foster insist that Hirst goes on his morning walk. Hirst’s animated second act recollections of old days with Spooner, Emily, Bunty, Stella, Arabella and Rupert, whilst on the surface seem real and affectionate, are clearly the product of an unbalanced brain. To what extent Spooner simply goes along with it, or is equally befuddled, is a moot point. The text defines “no man’s land” as a place “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older but which remains forever, icy and silent.” That could be a definition of Hirst’s house; it could be a definition of the workings of a failed, unwell mind. In any case, I don’t think the “take it as face value” approach works for this play. I’m sure it has a much greater hidden significance.

ian-mckellen-owen-teale-and-patrick-stewartThis riveting production is directed by Sean Mathias with a strong regard for the play’s sense of claustrophobia. On entering the auditorium you are met with a strangely disturbing, overly artificial, moving projection onto the front curtain of Hampstead Heath trees, flickering and glistening in the wind and the movement of the birds. This sets you up for a heightened expectation of uncomfortable detail, which Pinter’s words and Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set deliver in droves. The harsh light that invades the stage from who knows what outside the door pierces the calm darkness of Hirst’s room like a dagger. The tops of the trees shimmer unattainably above the stage, part aspirational, part mocking. Everything is nearly natural – but not quite.

no-mans-land-castSo what of Saturday’s matinee performance, with Andrew Jarvis in place of Patrick Stewart? We’d seen Mr Jarvis once before when he was Duncan in Sheffield’s Macbeth four years ago. He was excellent in that, but in No Man’s Land he truly shone. In those early conversations where you sense that Hirst is losing his way, he was dignified but uncertain, passionate but hollow, engaging in a fencing match with Spooner where the latter did all the work trying to find a way in and he merely had to occasionally parry riposte. When he’s fully lost, and trapped in the no man’s land of a memory of a photograph album, his emptiness is truly emotional. But when he feels like he’s in charge, he has something of the Act One Scene One Lear about him, bestowing grandiose beneficence; and he carries off that wonderful scene where it appears that he and Spooner are old friends with beautiful lightness and rhythm that was a joy to watch. As Sir Ian said at curtain call, although it was no doubt a disappointment not to see Sir Patrick, there was no need for an apology.

ian-mckellen-and-owen-tealeSir Ian, himself, gives one of his fascinatingly detailed performances where every muscle in his face moves with purpose. You always know precisely what it is that Spooner is thinking or feeling by simply watching the visual signs. He’s a wily character; happy to bludge a free drink, never letting go of his coat in case he has to scarper, always on the lookout to exercise his sense of moral or artistic superiority; reliant on his so-called friendship with the pub landlord in the same way that Blanche Dubois depends on the kindness of strangers. Sir Ian takes us on an epic journey of emotions where he tries to blend in with this apparently generous and extravagant household, in the end beseeching Hirst to let him be his secretary; the outsider desperate to be part of the in-crowd. It’s always a privilege to watch his performances; I love his attention to detail and his fantastic timing. In No Man’s Land you have the delight of seeing him take a champagne breakfast. I’ll say no more.

owen-teale-in-no-mans-landIt feels wrong to refer to Briggs and Foster as supporting roles because they’re completely vital to the plot and structure of the play – as well as dishing out the usual menace that we expect in the Pinter landscape. Owen Teale invests Briggs with all the necessary brute force just hovering at the back of the character somewhere; you always sense he’s just a gesture away from something downright evil. This makes it all the more delightful when his character starts to open up – like when he’s reminiscing, in that Pinteresque manner, of the difficulties in getting to and from Bolsover Street, the subtle implications that there may be more to his relationship with Foster than just colleagues, or when he just slips into the subservient role of breakfast and wine waiter; damian-molony-in-no-mans-landeven though the menace is still lurking just beneath the surface. Damien Molony (stunning in The Body of an American a couple of years ago) plays Foster as a trendy, cocky, self-centred man about town; someone who thinks and behaves like they’re more successful in life than they really are; the kind of character who’s recognisable in many a Pinter play. He delivers the end speech of Act One with a chilling sense of danger, and is always a tangibly disconcerting presence whenever on stage.

nomansland-castI thought this was a tremendous production that breathed superb life into the play forty years on. It was also a fantastic example of how, just because the star performer cannot go on, the show nevertheless must, and the understudy can pull off a superb performance. Yes, it’s true – this play is not for everyone; there were a few seats around us in the second act where people hadn’t returned after the interval. I guess if you don’t “get” Pinter’s vision of life, you could find it just too obscure to enjoy. Stick with it though, the second act is hugely rewarding and feels more accessible and understandable than the first act. This production is on until 17th December – and I think if you like your Pinter, you’re going to love this.

Production photographs by Johan Persson

Review – The Homecoming, Trafalgar Studios, 28th December 2015

The Homecoming“Got anything planned for this afternoon?” asked the bright young podiatrist earlier, as she committed acts of creamy lubrication to my battered old tootsies. “I’m going to write about a play we saw over Christmas” I replied. “Which play?” “A 1965 play by Harold Pinter called The Homecoming.” “What’s it about?” “Well…” I paused. “It’s about a father, and his three sons, two of them live with him, and the third one, he comes back to see them – that’s the homecoming of the title – and he brings his new wife with him.” I paused again. “And then the whole family uses her. For, erm, sexual purposes.” I felt the podiatrist just lose a slight grip of my foot. “That’s… odd,” she said warily. “Yes,” I replied. “What’s odder is that the wife seems perfectly happy about the arrangement.” She put my foot down and looked me in the eye. “That is odd”. “I believe it’s meant to be symbolic of something,” I lamely added; “symbolic of what, though, I haven’t quite worked out yet.”

Ron CookThere’s no denying it, this is a very odd play. Back when I was fifteen I took it on myself to read all of Pinter’s plays that he had written to date – that took me up to No Man’s Land. I found his landscape of veiled threats, black comedy, wretched lives and hidden pasts weirdly stimulating and captivating. But none of his plays surprised or intrigued me more than The Homecoming. A man brings his wife back to meet his family and before long they’re planning how they’re going to make money out of her by setting her up in Greek Street, and how they’re going to pass her round the family as though she were a blow-up doll. Meanwhile she doesn’t move a muscle to dissuade them from this new arrangement, and her husband goes back to their sons by himself with little apparent sense of rejection – indeed, it’s he who suggests that she will have to “pull her weight financially” if she stays.

John SimmWhy? Why would this be a natural conclusion to the story for any of the characters involved? OK, it’s an all-male household, and no doubt since the wife/mother Jessie passed away there hadn’t been much of an outlet for some “male needs” to be attended to (although thinking in terms of mother/son relationships, that’s a bit yukky). You can try to attribute all sorts of motivations and meanings to the play; maybe Teddy is bringing back his wife as some fertility sacrifice for the Greater Good of the Family. Alternatively, maybe she’s just a slag. Mrs Chrisparkle thinks Ruth is mentally ill, which, if true, creates a whole new scenario of abusive relationships to consider. No matter which way you look at this play, its outcome inhabits a completely alien morality.

John Simm in redThe production – which works extremely well, I hasten to add – is full of portentous light and sound effects which really add to a sense of stylised drama and crisis. This encourages the audience, I think, to look for meaning and significance where, perhaps, there really is none. Pinter’s stage directions, whilst by no means sparse, don’t give any indication of symbolism or other meanings. Things simply are what they are. You may choose to invest this play with meanings; the missing back wall might represent the missing female influence; the “homecoming” might be Ruth’s “coming home to herself”. But I think this is a play you can overcomplicate. Maybe it is just a glimpse into the machinations of one slightly weird family. If you think that renders the play banal, perhaps its strength is actually its ability to recognise its own banality. Having said all that – see the postscript below for another possibility.

Ron Cook going upstairsA mark of a good Pinter production is how they handle the pauses. If the pauses feel unnatural, or as though someone’s forgotten their lines, they’re not doing it right. If the pauses feel natural, or even better, if you don’t notice them at all, then they’ve got it spot on. Interestingly, given that Jamie Lloyd has directed this production within a very stylised framework (lights, bangs, a vivid red frame surrounding the set) the conversations flow perfectly. Certainly the very naturalistic performances make an intriguing contrast with the otherwise artificial presentation, which leaves you, the audience member, feeling unnerved and ill at ease.

Gary KempMax, the patriarch of the family, is played by Ron Cook and it’s a role he was born to play. Max is the archetypal “nasty little man”, full of sarcasm, self-pity, and bullying aggression, and Mr Cook conveys those characteristics with deadly credibility. There are a couple of passages where the text suggests that Max might have been, shall we say, “over-friendly” with his sons on bath nights or when “tucking them up” in bed, and that lingering sense of misdemeanour hangs horribly successfully in the atmosphere. I loved – if that’s the right word – his changes of vocal tone from gruff antagonist to wheedling beggar. It’s a fantastic performance.

Gemma ChanAlso superb, and notable for his vocal performance, is John Simm as Lenny. We saw Mr Simm in another Pinter play, Betrayal, in Sheffield a few years ago and he is one actor who you feel really understands what the writer is getting at. Mr Simm plays Lenny as rather superior, rather cunning and definitely self-centred (a chip off the old block one might say) and gives him a slightly whiny, spivvy voice; he reminded me of a cat, playfully teasing his mouse, letting it get so far, whilst at any minute he might unleash a lethal swipe. He’s a control freak; and when he loses control – as in some of his dealings with Ruth – Mr Simm really makes you feel his discomfort.

Gemma Chan and Ron CookGary Kemp – whose programme biog completely omits any reference to Spandau Ballet, which is weird, I’d be very proud if I’d written those songs – feels nicely out of place as the returning son Teddy, reassuring himself with the surroundings of the family home, having (allegedly) gone to America some time ago to become a Professor of Philosophy. He’s a fish out of water both in terms of his old family and his wife, as there seems to be no closeness between them. He comes across as a man full of worries, which, given the circumstances, seems quite appropriate; and when he leaves at the end, it’s as though he knew this would be the outcome all along. In a role where the audience is looking for some kind of recognisable normality and comfort, he refuses to give it; which emphasises the overall sense of unease. Nice work.

John Simm and Gemma ChanFor the performance we saw, the role of Sam was taken by his understudy, Geoffrey Towers, and he was extremely good. Perhaps the one character in the play with any sense of decency, you could just feel that he hated every moment of living in that household, with his belligerent brother constantly impugning his masculinity. John Macmillan plays Joey, the youngest brother, the one for whom the family wit and intelligence ran out before he was born. Demolition by day, boxer by night, his punch-drunk accent strayed slightly into caricature I felt; but maybe that was the idea.

John MacmillanBut it’s Gemma Chan’s characterisation of Ruth that is the star of the show. Initially ill at ease, once she comes back from her “breath of air”, and she meets Lenny, she’s completely in command; gently manipulative, precise in her actions, clear in her language but oh so ambiguous in her meaning. After Lenny has challenged Teddy to explain what a table is, philosophically speaking, there’s a wonderful scene where Ruth intimates her own brand of personal philosophy. When she talks of moving her leg, it’s just a movement; but her underwear moves with it, so it might have greater significance. She moves her leg to demonstrate. It’s a simple action, but so sexually charged that you could hear the legendary pin drop. It’s a beautifully controlled, expressive and stunning performance.

An engrossing and enjoyable night at the theatre – but it’s still a very odd play.

P.S. Ruth’s leg movement might also be Pinter’s way of telling you that you can view this play simply on face value or with a greater significance – and both might be correct. Or not. What do you think?

Production photos by Marc Brenner