REVIEW: Pinter Seven (Harold Pinter Theatre) ★★★★★

Short of a few rehearsed readings to come, Pinter Seven completes the Jamie Lloyd Company’s 24-week season turning the spotlight on Pinter’s one-act plays: a fascinating critical reappraisal of the late Nobel Prize winning playwright’s lifework a decade after his death. Jamie Lloyd has personally directed the bulk of them with a superb creative command of both force and nuance. Memorable directorial turns from Lia Williams, Lyndsey Turner, Ed Stambollouian, Patrick Marber have emphasised the surprising diversity and range of Pinter’s work. Even when the plays themselves haven’t risen to full stature, the production and performances have been first-rate throughout.

Each episode of the season has achieved special potency by its clever thematic sequencing: the savage weltpolitik of One, Two’s reworking of sexual comedy, the dolly mixture bag-up of Three and Four, the unsettling paradoxes of Five and scabrous social satire of Six. Pinter Seven is a double bill of A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter. They are (literally) matched together by the visitation of an inscrutable matchseller in one and the inexplicable manifestation of a handful of matches in the other. As is typical in Pinter, the closed-off worlds of the characters are broken into and destabilised by strange forces threatening and sometimes visiting destruction.

A Slight Ache premiered as a radio broadcast in 1959 and Jamie Lloyd’s production reframes the play within the radio studio itself, remixing its bright English pastoral of petals and petticoats to magnify the uncertainties at its heart. The framing effects of microphones, foley and live sound effects disintegrate into feedback. The action breaks the frame at times of high intensity. This staging interrogates the cracks and jealousies in the period’s starched sexual stuffiness. “You’re a solid old boy” lusts Flora, played with perfect screwy poise by Gemma Whelan. John Hefferman pierces the braggadocio and callow male pretensions of the would-be holiday theologian Edward. When he re-enters as the balaclava’d matchseller in a final tableau of obscure terror we experience directly what Jamie Lloyd has consistently skewered in these plays: an implacable terror more terrifying for being unfathomable.

The Dumb Waiter is core Pinter, one of the key classics that is one of the most concise distillations of his dramatic art: unstated menace rumbling through black comic smalltalk, and the disarming sense of doubt about every detail of scene and character. The direction and performances command and extend these quintessences. In a bleak grey-prison-like interior of leaky pipes and metal beds, two apparent gangsters in braces and brogues await the orders of an unseen authority. It’s Waiting For Godot with thin walls and dodgy plumbing.

Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer both play to strengths. Freeman’s comedy of subtle responsiveness betrays a hapless soul with a core steeliness. Dyer, with his clenched fists and duck-like posture, nervously combing and pacing on the spot, seems to expand and contract with nervous energy. It’s worth it just for his scowl while riffling the newspaper. His is a pitch-perfect portrayal of a masculinity in crisis: a firebrand snowflake of clenched-up anxiety unprepared to admit weakness or acknowledge mistakes. The dark Beckettian comedy of writing is stretched to breaking point, and the pair manage to communicate something you don’t get a lot of in Pinter: character development. Dyer’s Ben seems to crumble from his own contradictions. Freeman’s Gus starts to seethe and turn ugly-shouty. The sense of sheer suffering and tension they manage to pack into the freeze-frame climax of the play leaves a residual impression of universal existential horror. Pinter distilled to his essence.

Reviewed by AJ Dehany
Photo: Marc Brenner

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