Every dramatist has their off plays. Stage Shakespeare in full and you’re stuck with “Two Noble Kinsmen.” Tackle Chekhov and your problem is “Platonov.” Director-producer Jamie Lloyd’s charge through Harold Pinter’s shorts and sketches, “Pinter at the Pinter,” has, so far, playfully sent up those that aren’t quite up to scratch. This latest batch can’t pull the same trick. Stretching from Pinter’s very first play to his last, there’s very little that’s vintage in between.
In hindsight, “The Room” feels like Pinter’s prototype. Written over four days in 1956 for a student company, it bears striking similarities to “The Birthday Party.” Set in a small bedsit that’s given a grubby, grey anonymity by designer Soutra Gilmour, it watches a twitchy housewife, Rose (Jane Horrocks), wittering at her husband, who has barricaded himself behind his paper at breakfast. The mundane domestic scene bends slowly out of shape as stray ends suggest all’s not as it seems.
Rose’s anxious ramblings about finding a foothold — getting “a good room” to “stand a chance” — add a familiar sense of precarious life, even refuge or flight, and Horrocks has the right jittery vulnerability. Intrusions are unwelcome, whether Nicholas Woodeson’s nosy landlord or the two unsettlingly suave strangers whose very names suggest danger, Mr. and Mrs. Sands. Beneath the surface, you sense secrets will out — not least when Horrocks lets her hair down.
It’s striking how many of Pinter’s tricks and techniques seem fully-formed straight away: silences that stifle the air, weaponized questions that reveal what the asker knows, breaks in etiquette that feel like acts of aggression. If “The Room” is short on structure, with too little meat on its bones, it’s an illuminating insight into Pinter’s style, and, in this context, style overrides substance.
Once again, Lloyd’s immaculate curation lets us see the literary links running through Pinter’s work. The plays presented in “Pinter Five” harness the temporary, liminal spaces that recur in his plays, the boarding houses and derelict attics. The rented hideout of “The Room” feels typical and, alongside the radio play “Family Voices,” suggests Pinter’s fascination with escape from one’s self, one’s past or one’s life.
In that play, Luke Thallon’s young runaway seems thrilled by his adopted, alternative family, equally delighted and disturbed by the ease of reinvention, just as Rupert Graves’ taxi driver seems bewildered by the ease of his epiphany in “Victoria Station.” Sat somewhere in Crystal Palace, thunderstruck by love for the passenger asleep in his backseat, he soaks up the apoplexy of his cab controller (Colin McFarlane) like a man who has seen through the stupidity of life. Patrick Marber’s direction finds the vaudevillian lunacy of the routine without losing the religious qualities of this minicab confessional.
“Pinter Six,” meanwhile, shows us the satirist, even the caricaturist. By pairing two of Pinter’s late political plays, Lloyd showcases his savage spin on the super-rich. It has, surely, only sharpened in the years since.
Written in the wake of the 1990 poll tax riots that ripped through central London, “Party Times” takes us to a hoity-toity drinks-do whose attendees are oblivious to the violence escalating outside. In four short scenes, Pinter shreds the tittle-tattle of the socio-political elite with their ultra-exclusive health clubs and strained bonhomie. By dressing the guests in black and arming them with an identical basin of blood red wine, Lloyd gives it all a vampiric gloss that suggests the upper echelons have confined themselves to a crypt. When Abraham Popoola bursts in at the last — tagged, cuffed and bloodstained — he’s less a ghost at the feast than the zombie in its midst.
If “Party Time” has hints of J.G. Ballard, “Celebration” is pure Martin Amis. Lampooning the nouveau riche of the late-nineties, when The Ivy was overrun with Cool Britannia’s celebs, Pinter’s crude sketch scoffs at two East End brothers done good and their ghastly, glammed-up wives. The cast have a blast. Ron Cook is a Brylcreemed bastard with a constant leer, whose perma-tan clashes with the red face of his bellicose brother (Phil Davis). Celia Imrie and Tracy-Ann Oberman pout, primp and suck eggs beneath huge heads of hair. With John Simm’s Rolex-flashing cityboy and his ditzy ex-secretary Suki (Katherine Kingsley) also proving that money can’t buy you class, Pinter suggests a world turned topsy-turvy, where the well-to-do wait on the well-off working classes. Gary Kemp’s thin-lipped maître d’ is the picture of civility, but its Popoola’s deadpan dynastic interjections that steal the show as he lists the connections hanging off his family tree.