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 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

Review – The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studio 1, 31st January 2015

The Ruling Class1968 – what a momentous year for British theatre. The new Theatres Act did away with the censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s office and writers now the freedom to convey the characters, the stories, and the satire that they had previously had to employ subterfuge to produce – that is, if they could produce it at all. Watching this revival of Peter Barnes’ savage 1968 comedy The Ruling Class really brings back that atmosphere of challenging the system, daring to be different, taking risks that might or might not work, heaping anarchy on to the stage; having pure expression as your dramatic be-all and end-all.

J McAvoyThere’s no way this play would have been passed by the censor without his blue pen scrawled all over it. The main character spends much of Act One hopping on and off a crucifix (he thinks he’s God by the way, so it’s not inappropriate). The censor’s guidelines that had been handed down since 1909 included a clause that a play should not “do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence”. Well this play does that quite a lot. The 14th Earl of Gurney’s justification for believing he is God – “when I pray to Him I find I’m talking to myself” – is a pretty damning slap down to any fervent Christian.

Serena EvansBut that’s all history now. In 2015 we take it for granted that we can say or do what we like on stage (more or less – there’s always a chance that a Mrs Whitehouse-type person could bring a private prosecution, mind) and as such, for the most part, we don’t tend to push the boundaries that much anymore. It’s already been done, and we frequently take that as an excuse simply not to bother with it nowadays. But back in 1968, boundaries were there to be dismantled. The title itself – The Ruling Class – makes no apologies for its black and white vision of the nobility; a simple tale of old Tory folk, representative of many who basically ran the country.

Joshua McGuireThere’s the traditional family elder who likes to put on a tutu and dangle from a noose, the wet behind the ears toffee nosed cousin destined to be the local MP, the husband and wife who each take lovers as a given right, the mistress who can be employed to marry the Earl just so she can bear an heir, and of course the Earl himself, hidden away for years but who returns to take on the mantle of family leadership, despite being a paranoid schizophrenic who believes he’s God. At least he’s God until the second act, when he starts believing he’s something far more sinister. Outwardly the face of respectability, the play assumes that the Gurney family are typical of the old landed nobility on which the country has relied for centuries, and to whom, in previous decades, dramatists might have handled with kid gloves and loving respect. Not so Peter Barnes, who sideswipes the traditions and reveals the Earl and his family to be the immoral horde of crooks, lunatics and perverts that they are.

Forbes MassonSo is this play relevant today? Given the fact that we still have a considerable class structure, that a mere 1% of the world’s population own 48% of its wealth, and that you still have to have a considerable degree of independent wealth in order to stand for parliament, I’d say yes. Added to that the continued debate about the value of the House of Lords, questions of espionage, and a still inadequate understanding of mental health issues, and this is as relevant as ever. The only way in which the play feels at all dated is in some of the references. Old retainer Tucker goes loco on the news he will inherit £20,000, which at today’s rate would be about a quarter of a million pounds – currently about half the cost of the measliest studio apartment in Chelsea. The musical numbers, that the cast occasionally break into with delightful 60s anarchy, nobody sings anymore. “Dem dry bones” “My Blue Heaven” and the Eton Boating Song definitely represent a different era. Personally, I don’t think that matters much. It was written in 1968 – and it’s set in 1968. Not everything has to be today.

Anthony O'DonnellJack’s second act transformation from benign (if loopy) God to Jack the Ripper also highlights one of the time’s major obsessions. I can remember the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle saying there were only two things she hoped would be revealed before she died – proof that the Loch Ness Monster exists (yes, I know) and the true identity of Jack the Ripper. I don’t think either of those mysteries quite captures the imagination of the public today in the way that they did in the 1960s. A modern audience member who hasn’t done their research or bought the programme might well be confused by Jack’s identity change in Act Two, and if you don’t recognise the names of the Ripper victims as they get called out, you might not realise which way the play’s going. However, in 1968 those names would have been instantly recognisable by the entire audience. Of course, many of the Ripper theories suggest that a member of the nobility might have been responsible for the murders, so moving the plot in this direction not only gives it a nice twist but is still in keeping with exploring the reprehensible kind of tricks a family like the Gurneys could have up their sleeve.

Kathryn DrysdaleJamie Lloyd’s production is fairly faithful to the original, although I enjoyed the joke of having two male actors playing the Tory ladies Mrs Treadwell and Mrs Piggot-Jones. With a central role like Jack Gurney, it’s easy to see why it attracts larger than life, charismatic actors like Peter O’Toole, who took the role in the 1972 film and flung his unique magic at it. Now one of our best young actors, James McAvoy, has taken the reins and gives us a really entertaining and credible performance. It would be easy to go over-the-top with this role and make the character into a flamboyant show-off, a mere figure of fun whose eccentricities are there for us to laugh at and ridicule. But like King Lear’s Fool, there’s much more substance to Jack, and by making him a considered, rounded sort of paranoid schizophrenic, it makes his second act development not only perfectly reasonable but also very sinister. Mr McAvoy has great stage presence and excellent comic timing but is also scarily serious when the text calls for it. I’m pleased to report he also gives a graciously happy curtain call.

Ron CookHe’s supported by a talented team who provide us with some excellent performances. It’s been many years since I’ve seen Ron Cook on stage and I’d forgotten what a great actor he is. His Sir Charles Gurney is a delightfully weasly, self-centred, horrid little man, trying to maintain as much power for himself by manipulating those around him. Serena Evans, as his wife Claire, is a perfect match for him, weighing up how do you solve a problem like Jack with seeming innocence, but when she goes in for the kill it’s not quite the kill she expected. Her performance is a classic mix of nobility and tart. Kathryn Drysdale is nicely duplicitous as Grace, the 13th earl’s enamorata, Sir Charles’ mistress and the 14th earl’s wife. She’s in it for what she can get but at the same time shows a surprising loyalty towards her husband. Noblesse obliges for her just as much as anyone. Michael CroninJoshua McGuire, a fantastic Mozart in last year’s Amadeus at Chichester, is perfect as the simpering cousin Dinsdale, a typical Lord Muck character, acting superior whilst being completely lacking in substance; and I also enjoyed the quiet dignity of Elliot Levey’s Dr Herder, seemingly authoritative in his medical knowledge but joining the list of stage psychiatrists who end up on the off-piste side of the mental sticky slope in strait jackets. Joe Orton, who also combines lunatics and doctors in What The Butler Saw, would have loved the idea of the doctor being sexually aroused by a detective’s dead body outline on the floor.

James McAvoyAnthony O’Donnell provides many of the best laughs with his aggressively irreverent manservant Tucker, puffing away on his cigar as he joins the big league, but whilst also confiding in us that he is a Soviet spy – and why not? In Mr Barnes’ world nothing can be taken for granted. Michael Cronin is a pompous windbag of a Bishop, and Paul Leonard and Forbes Masson give excellent support in a variety of minor roles, including the ghastly Tory ladies, and I really liked Mr Masson as fellow Old Etonian Truscott, showing that the Old Boys Network is a solid bond that mere Elliot Leveyinsanity cannot break.

So although it’s very much of its time, this play also reveals timeless truths about timeless issues. A very funny production of a remarkable piece of writing, full of the joy of late 60s freedom and anarchy. A welcome arrival in the West End – we both loved it.