mon 15/07/2024

Pinter Seven, Harold Pinter Theatre review - elaborations of anxiety | reviews, news & interviews

Pinter Seven, Harold Pinter Theatre review - elaborations of anxiety

Pinter Seven, Harold Pinter Theatre review - elaborations of anxiety

The season's closing pairing presents Danny Dyer and a radio revelation

Danny Dyer, Martin Freeman: 'slotting in historically somewhere between Stan and Ollie and Tarantino'Images: Marc Brenner

It was back to the very beginning for this final instalment of “Pinter at the Pinter”, with its pairing of A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter.

Both were written at the end of the 1950s, which explained a certain rock’n’roll vibe in the auditorium, but brought home how much Pinter’s work stretches beyond period, resounding with new intonations to match new times.

This highly revealing commemorative season of the playwright’s one-act plays has shown what (relative) rediscoveries there are to be made. A Slight Ache, originally written in 1959 as a radio play, remains much less known than The Dumb Waiter; written in 1957, which reached the London stage three years later and is now among the signature early Pinter works. The casting here of Danny Dyer, himself something of a protégé of the dramatist, and Martin Freeman, certainly makes it the centre of advance attention on Jamie Lloyd’s double-bill, arguably even of the season as a whole.

But it's A Slight Ache that proves the revelation of the evening. Lloyd’s production cleverly plays on its radio origins, his cast (John Heffernan, Gemma Whelan) located in a studio, complete with clutched microphones and illuminated “On Air” sign, but each moves in and out of that defined setting as their solo developments demand (Whelan doubles it all with ingeniously providing studio sound effects, a lovely touch).

Language is made strange, sparklingly so, with the staccatos attached to choice words 

It plays around the Pinter trope of outsiders occupying apparently secure spaces – here, the smug House and Gardens-style apparent idyll of Flora and Edward’s home and marriage – and destroying them from within. The nominal interloper is an aged, dishevelled match-seller, and class was at the fore, his silence all the more threatening against the cut-glass, RP accents of the couple; how keenly Pinter captures their self-satisfied primness, equalled only by its latent capacity for self-destruction. But, of course, this being radio, and a two-hander to boot, there is no literal impostor (some theatrical stagings have provided a physical presence), so the attacks are subliminal. Most desperately so in Whelan’s case, where a whole life story of sexual repression is challenged, the cadence of her line, “Speak to me of love”, cutting through with practically Lawrentian primality.

How much “Pinter at the Pinter” has taught us about the dramatist’s uncanny ability to premeditate history. He was writing A Slight Ache only three years after Suez, but it certainly chimes with current Brexit issues, reasserting as they do those same national questions of “place in the world” that Pinter isolates in microcosm. Was I the only one to detect a chord of Rees-Mogg in Edward’s snobbish, over-educated arcanity? Yet Edward gets some of the most glorious lists in the Pinter canon (he reels off a choice of drinks with indecent luxuriance). Likewise the sinister inflections attached to the names of various garden plants: language is made strange, sparklingly so, with the staccatos attached to choice words like “hassock” or “stripling”; there's a whole absurdist, pre-Python universe there in “solo whist”. (Pictured below: John Heffernan, Gemma Whelan)Pinter Seven, Harold Pinter TheatreWhich, surprisingly, makes The Dumb Waiter somewhat pale in comparison, though the verbal epiphanies are there: where else does “bean sprout” evoke the astonishment of a moon landing, or “deficient ballcock” acquire the certainty of criminal conviction? But Dyer’s Ben and Freeman’s Gus didn’t quite sustain it in their long semantic sequence about how you engage with a kettle. The recurring reductio ad absurdum, as in the recycled newspaper headlines, was sometimes perfect, but elsewhere something – the exactly right kind of brio, perhaps – felt missing. When it doesn’t quite come together, Ben’s line, “When are you going to stop jabbering?”, acquires a different emphasis.

The physical movement was right, though, Freeman stretching, almost militarily, at the beginning as he limbered up, set against Dyer’s preening apathy of bodily texture, their odd-couple double act slotting in historically somewhere between Stan and Ollie and Tarantino’s later, similarly black-suited shooters. If the laughter of A Slight Ache is occasionally revelatory, even expansive, here it falls between relieved and somehow inappropriate, that enclosed quality caught in Soutra Gilmour’s set, its defining action coming from the slamming of the titular object. It may seem ironic when Ben talks of liking a “look at the scenery” when this nefarious duo sets off on a jaunt, but what vistas Pinter discovers in these enclosed, desolate territories of anxiety that he charted. “Pinter at the Pinter” has reminded us, brilliantly, of the richness of his brevity.

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