REVIEW: Pinter Three / Pinter Four (Harold Pinter Theatre) ★★★

Disconnection is the connecting theme of the third and fourth instalments of the Jamie Lloyd Company’s continuing presentation of all of Pinter’s one act plays. Pinter Three and Four gives us an insight into the late Nobel Prize-winning writer’s influences and characteristic tropes, as well as his most irritating tics. These selections are not his best and the staging and performances have to work hard to rescue the writing.

Pinter Three is packed with comic acting talent well placed to bring out the humour in Pinter’s comedy of menace, but theatricality strains under the influence of Samuel Beckett. Landscape (from 1969) performed by Tamsin Greig and Keith Allen, is essentially two concurrent monologues that are ambiguous in their connections and riven by incompatible concerns. Greig’s Beth reflects on the emotional side of life in a soft Billie Whitelaw Irish accent. Allen’s Duff mansplains about brewing and food, escalating to anger and sexual violence. The two are effective in their sense of brutal and tender separation, and Allen doesn’t labour the ironic desperation of the key line “We’re together, that’s what matters.”

Greig and Allen are paired again in A Kind of Alaska, in which they feel undersold in another semi-static tableau. The play has an interesting historical basis. From 1916-17 an epidemic of sleeping sickness affected almost five million people, a third of whom died. Many fell into a strange sleep from which some only awoke after the development of the L-DOPA drug fifty years later. Deborah wakes in a bed to find herself with a child’s mind in a woman’s body, surrounded by relatives she can’t recognise. She’s disconnected not only from others but from herself. Will Self (no pun intended) made a sprawling modernist novel out of this, 2012’s Umbrella, but Pinter gives this highly promising material a po-faced allegorical treatment reminiscent of the Arthur Miller, with the same painfully strained humour.

The laughs also feel forced in the intervening revue sketches, a mixed bag of curmudgeonly grouses expressing the author’s cynicism about modern life, revealing his dislike of mobile phones and his anti-Americanism. There’s a lot of Footlights-style naughty humour that seems especially dated. The sketches and the plays abound in Mockney stereotypes. Lee Evans wrenches big laughs out of the material by shamelessly gurning and eyerolling to the crowd, but he comes into his own in the first act’s closing Monologue, from 1973. With this more sensitive material he is funny and touching, and he speaks the poetic line “As if the rain in the light on the pavements in the twilight never existed” delicately. On the page it seems too much but against the sound of rain pattering and pounding his tortured fragility was affecting and revealing.

Opening the double-bill of Pinter Four, Moonlight (from 1993) foregrounds the poetry of what Pinter does. It is a convergence of many Pinter tropes and themes: it’s a memory play, a comedy of menace, and patterned by double acts and love triangles. It also abounds in Beckettian soliloquising, stiff Shakespearean dialogue and cold humour. Lyndsey Turner’s contained style of direction doesn’t help us penetrate the play’s confusing obliqueness. Andy, played with surly familiarity by Robert Glenister, is an archetypal gammon man who is dying in a bed, disconnected from his family, who occupy separate stories that never connect up with his. It makes for a bleak statement.

Director Ed Stambollouian brings a lively contrast in Night School, originally played quite differently on TV in 1960 and published in 1979. He opens up the theatre to the bare walls with minimal set and an onstage drummer, and turns the Mockney up to 11, amplifying the bawdy comedy as well as the dated humour style we saw in the revue sketches. The derisory plot concerns Walter, a wideboy crim played by Al Weaver, returning home from prison to make his way among the other ghouls and gargoyles of the East End.

Brid Brennan and Janie Dee bring tremendous gusto to Annie and Milly, two Cockney Mrs Doyles with stuffed rumps and bosoms, facial masks and rollers. They are admittedly a scream as much as a cringe. Beneath the ribald comedy is a dark story in which we learn that a young lady, Jessica Barden’s Sally, wasn’t at night school but was working in a seedy club. Her fate is compromised by the ghastly spivs of the London nightlife, but there’s little emotional heft to the proceedings. We look forward to the next instalments of Pinter At The Pinter to see the Bard of Hackney in a stronger light.

Reviewed by AJ Dehany
Photo: Marc Brenner

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