Tag Archives: Harold Pinter

Odd Couples


Harold Pinter Theatre, Saturday 16th February, 2019


a slight ache

The double-bill of Pinter dialogues kicks off with this radio play, written in 1958.  Director Jamie Lloyd sets it in a radio studio, with his actors seated at microphones with scripts, while sound effects fashioned by unseen hands help to depict the scene of a couple having tea in the garden and having to deal with a wasp in the marmalade.  As their talk turns to the mysterious figure who stands at their back gate, a match-seller who does no trade, the characters break out of the radio space and move away from their scripts.  Now we are in the home of Edward and Flora.  They invite the match-seller in.  We don’t see him but he is there, conjured by Pinter’s words.

John Heffernan is powerful as Edward, taking sadistic pleasure in the killing of the wasp, before going through an emotional meltdown.  Gemma Whelan’s Flora is the epitome of the 1950s middle-class, with a clipped delivery that enhances both the period feel and the ‘otherness’ of the piece.  Domestic details and everyday events take an eerie and startling turn, building to a surprising climax.  This is Inside No 9 territory half a century beforehand!


slight ache

Radio gaga: John Heffernan and Gemma Whelan


the dumb waiter

More well-known than the previous piece, this two-hander is set in a basement room of a former café.  Two hitmen lounge on beds, awaiting instructions for their next job.  Suddenly, food orders begin to arrive via the dumb waiter, throwing the men off their stride and increasing their nervous tension as they try to understand what is happening.

Martin Freeman is in superb form as the antsy Gus, nervously and repeatedly asking questions, and the perfect foil for Danny Dyer’s irritable, snappy Ben.   Dyer is the more menacing of the pair, but Pinter’s use of bathos diminishes Ben’s power and status for some highly hilarious moments.  We witness these experienced professional killers lose their nerve as the situation throws them off-kilter.

Freeman and Dyer are hugely enjoyable; the play is a virtuoso piece of timing and tension.  I did not want it to end.  A dazzling display of brilliance from all concerned and a wonderful testament to the genius of Harold Pinter.


dumb waiter

Hit Men: Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman (Photo: Marc Brenner)


Anyone for Menace?


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 14th June, 2016


This tour of Harold Pinter’s first full-length play by the excellent London Classic Theatre comes to its end in Coventry, and it’s pleasing to see a good turnout and to hear the dialogue getting so many laughs.  The play happens to be a big favourite of mine.

Once again, I marvel at Pinter’s skills at taking everyday patterns of speech and manipulating them, not only to humorous effect but also to generate an air of threat.  By and large, what is said is funny, but it is what the characters don’t say that creates the menace – apart from the sudden violent outbursts, of course.

Meg takes in lodgers at her seaside home.  Her husband Petey is a deckchair attendant.  Their only houseguest is Stanley, a former professional pianist.  When two men arrive, supposedly on Stanley’s birthday, they use the festivities to further their own ends, namely getting Stanley where they want him, ready to be taken away…  It’s chilling because of the lack of explanation.  Histories are hinted at; we try to read between the lines, but there are too many pieces missing from this jigsaw puzzle.  We are left with unsettling feelings, all explanations denied.

It’s a solid, straightforward production, and it is beautifully played by the cast of six.  Cheryl Kennedy’s Meg is dim and daft – behind her annoying treatment of Stanley is the vaguest sense of loss, of never having been loved, of being childless perhaps… Ged McKenna is excellent as Petey, shuffling around – he tries to stand up to the interlopers but he’s a defenceless old man.  Ultimately, by letting Meg’s delusions continue for a little bit longer, he shows us that he does care for her.  Gareth Bennett Ryan’s Stanley falls apart before our very eyes – from bossing around his landlady, to banging his drum, assaulting a guest, before ultimately being reduced to a gibbering shadow.  That guest, Lulu, is a perky Imogen Wilde but it is not with Stanley that she has a grievance the morning after, but the avuncular but sinister Goldberg (Jonathan Ashley on fine form).  Goldberg is overbearing and sentimental – a front for his real nature and his unspecified mission.  Declan Rodgers amuses as hot-headed sidekick McCann, sometimes psychopathic, sometimes sociable.

Goldberg and McCann’s stichomythia is handled splendidly, wearing down their victim by force of words, familiar yet incomprehensible.

Director Michael Cabot uses no gimmicks, allowing Pinter to have his head, teasing out the play’s dark corners and letting the language (and indeed the silences) speak volumes, taking the action at a steady pace.

People emerging from the auditorium confess to being a bit baffled, claiming not to ‘get it’.  What they don’t get is that’s the point.  Life isn’t fully explained or explainable.  Threats and attacks can be random and inexplicable.  Your number could be up at any minute, and those men with their van with the wheelbarrow in it, could be coming for you next, whether you deserve it or not.

To me, the play is a masterpiece – and it is very well served by this no frills, straight-down-the-line production.


Gareth Bennett-Ryan and Cheryl Kennedy review the papers

Home Discomforts


Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 7th January, 2016


This production marks fifty years since Pinter’s play was first staged but the script seems fresh as a daisy. Soutra Gilmour’s design suggests an old-fashioned box set with a red frame delineating the limits of the room in which the action takes place, while the sparse furnishings clearly belong to the era in which it is set. We’re back in the 60s but it’s a highly stylised version. Director Jamie Lloyd intersperses Pinter’s more naturalistic aspects with scene transitions of heightened emotion, where Richard Howell’s expressionistic lighting shows us the characters’ internal lives – moments we can only intuit from Pinter’s dialogue. The lighting is accompanied by George Dennis’s loud and dissonant sound design. It’s unsettling, disturbing – almost an aural representation of Munch’s The Scream.   It works to emphasise the horror and agony of existence for these people, complementing the air of menace Pinter concocts through words and silence.

Max (the formidable Ron Cook) rules the roost as patriarch to three grown-up sons, two of whom still live at home, along with their Uncle Sam (not that one!). It’s a little world of men without women, angry domesticity and bitter recriminations. Into this dark place, eldest son Teddy (Gary Kemp) brings his elegant wife Ruth (Gemma Chan). What begins as an ‘into the lions’ den’ scenario, deftly develops into a ‘cat among the pigeons’ situation, as Ruth joins the ongoing power struggles and plays the men at their own game. Chan is perfectly cast; cool and aloof, reserved but readable. Kemp is good too, as weak-willed, middle-class prat Teddy, contrasting neatly with his brothers: John Macmillan is aspiring boxer Joey, his speech and thoughts slowed by too many blows to the head, and John Simm is charismatic as slimy Lenny, a dodgy geezer and no mistake. Simm is perhaps a little too likeable; his Lenny doesn’t seem quite dangerous or unpredictable enough. Strong as this lot are, for me it’s Keith Allen that shines the brightest as Uncle Sam, subtly effeminate and arguably the only ‘decent’ character in the piece.

Above all, Pinter’s script reigns supreme. Dark and funny and darkly funny, it utilises naturalistic speech patterns and idioms to hint at and tease out character and back story, leading us to clutch at meaning and significance. The sudden outburst of violence still surprises as much as the use of language delights. The play is well-served by this stylish production, although I would have liked Max’s collapse and capitulation to be more visceral and complete – Ruth usurps his throne, before our very eyes; we should be left with the idea that there is no going back. You can’t go home again.


Gary Kemp, Ron Cook and Gemma Chan (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Back Story


Derby Theatre, Thursday 5th September, 2013

London Classic Theatre’s latest tour kicks off in Derby but already it feels like a production that has had more performances.  The cast of four seem well bedded in their roles – and I use the term advisedly: Pinter’s Betrayal is the story of an affair.

On the face of it, “Man sleeps with best friend’s wife” seems unremarkable as a storyline.  It is a staple ingredient of every soap you can think of.  What sets Pinter’s version apart is the structure.  The action happens backwards – I don’t mean in some comic rewind kind of way.  We meet the characters in nine scenes, each scene occurring before the previous.  This is a device that has since been used in more than a couple of films, but few examples are as effective as presented here.

And so we first meet Emma (Rebecca Pownall) and Jerry (Steven Clarke) sometime after their affair has ended.  Gradually we track their relationship right back to the pivotal moment of their decision to embark on it.  Along the way, husband Robert (Pete Collis) gets wind of it.  Such is the effect of the structure, the tension is almost palpable.  Earlier (or later!) Emma reveals that Robert has hit her a few times.  When we come to the scene when the truth comes out, the possibility of our witnessing such violence is very real.

The cast run the gamut of emotions.  As Emma, Rebecca Pownall is brittle, strident, vulnerable, happy… but, as if often the case with Pinter, her most powerful scenes are when she says very little.  She squirms in her Venetian deck chair as Robert skirts around her infidelity during a holiday.  Her silence speaks volumes.  It is remarkable.  Lover Jerry is a bit of a prat; Steven Clarke imbues him with likeability along with his selfishness and impulsive nature.  Pete Collis’s Robert is, by contrast, quite a static figure, but his stillness hints at the emotion he is restraining.  The fourth member of the cast is Max Wilson as the Italian waiter who gets the brunt of Robert’s annoyance, as anger is deflected from his best friend across the table.

It all runs like clockwork.  The script is undeniably Pinter.  The drama is leavened by the unconscious humour of everyday interaction, the highly charged subtext contrasts with the banality of the characters’ middle class existence, emotions are articulated between the lines, and an underlying sense of tension bubbles along throughout.

Director Michael Cabot has got it spot on in terms of pace and tone.  Bek Palmer’s set evokes ruined buildings, in a war zone, perhaps: scenes take place among partial corners, doorways and windows.  The characters lives are in ruins, after all!  Andy Grange’s lighting design helps differentiate the locations – the final moment, when the affair begins, owes as much to the designers as it does the performers.  The colour palette is muted, greys and browns.  This is the 1970s.  Touches of colour appear the closer we revert to the 60s.  It’s very subtly done through costume (designer: Katja Krzesinska) making for a quality production in all respects.  The only nit I would pick is that the hairstyles need 70-fying a bit more.  Perhaps as the tour goes on, this will happen naturally as the actors’ hair grows! Image