Theatre: Pinter Five and Six

A slice of Pinter worth the wait


Harold Pinter wasn’t one to acknowledge his Jewish roots particularly. Yet here they are in his rarely produced first play The Room (1957) which kicks off the fifth and sixth sections of this starry retrospective of his short works.

Jane Horrocks’s Rose Hudd — as twitchy and nervous as a wren — is the tenant of a shabby post-war room. Nicholas Woodeson is her ageing landlord whose memory is so unreliable doubt grows about his true identity.

While Hudd’s husband (Rupert Graves) lies on the room’s bed — a figure of latent, inert violence—landlord and tenant have the kind of conversation that makes you want to pull your hair out with frustration. The exchanges are full of non sequiturs, unanswered questions and sentences that end in cul de sacs. In other words, Pinter’s ear for the way in which people talk in real life is fully developed. One such sentence, uttered apropos of almost nothing, is when Woodeson’s increasingly misty minded landlord declares that his mother was Jewish, probably.

But if the Pinteresque qualities of language were fully developed by the time the author wrote his first play, it shows that another trademark element of Pinter’s had yet to be refined — that of male violence. It is meted out to a mysterious uninvited guest (Colin McFarlane) far more explicitly than would have been the case in the later plays. But it didn’t take long for something more subtle to emerge. In Pinter’s next work The Birthday Party (1958), the almost unbearable threat is all suggestion and boot and fist never meets flesh.

Nearly a quarter of a century later Pinter returned to the tenement block in Family Voices (1981). The one act play has a fantastic central performance here by Luke Thallon as a young man in an imagined exchange between him and his estranged mother (Horrocks again). Thallon has an Eddie Redmayne-like streak of vulnerability about him and an uncanny ability to morph into the personas of his fellow tenants while transmitting his solitude.

The two works are separated by a darkly comic extended sketch called Victoria Station (1982) in which McFarlane is the controller of a minicab company and Graves an unhinged man in some kind of crisis who is driving the only cab available for a fare at Victoria Station. It is funny but it wouldn’t be Pinter if it wasn’t also disturbing, which it is in spades. Marber directs all three with a sure-footed light touch.

I’ve been more down than up about this season, particularly in respect of Pinter’s political works. But this fifth section really is worth waiting for. It is followed (on separate evenings) by Pinter Six, directed by the season’s artistic director Jamie Lloyd, featuring two short works separated by just over a decade in terms of when they were written. Each features people enjoying a social occasion. In Party Time (1991) the ruling classes are quaffing at a soirée while news filters in that on the streets outside a kind of clampdown is taking place on their behalf. It feels like a horribly prescient forecast of a fractured society. In Celebration (2000) meanwhile two gangster brothers and their molls — who are sisters — are having lunch at a posh London restaurant.

The works are cross cast and terrifically well performed, particularly by Celia Imrie as a heartless aristocrat, John Simm as a psychotic “banker” and Ron Cook and Phil Davis as the gobby, vulgar bothers. Also outstanding is Tracy-Ann Oberman as one of the molls, Julie, who transmits a sexuality from beneath a breaking wave of blonde hair that is as alluring as it is aggressive.

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