“Pinter at the Pinter” has been an education — a crash course in Britain’s greatest post-war playwright. Director-producer Jamie Lloyd’s star-studded, six-month sprint through Harold Pinter’s short plays and sketches has been exquisitely curated and consistently revelatory. Not only has Lloyd tuned audiences into the writer’s technique, his unconventional groupings have exposed a load of latent themes from loneliness to limbo. The final installment, which brings Pinter’s old protégée Danny Dyer back to the stage, might be the most perfect pairing of all.
Overlaid with George Dennis’s creepy theme tunes, “A Slight Ache” and “The Dumb Waiter” seem like Pinter’s version of “Twilight Zone” tales. Both come with a neat twist in the tale, but they are unsettling and absurdist glimpses of existential dread.
“The Dumb Waiter,” in particular, is a fine cosmic joke. In the dank basement of a Birmingham restaurant, two hitmen awaiting instructions on their next job are tormented by a disused dumb waiter that suddenly creaks into life. When it does, Dyer and Martin Freeman’s twitchy hoodlums, Ben and Gus, hop to their feet and point pistols at this hole in the wall — only for it to deliver a different order of order. Steak and chips. Sago pudding. Char sui with beansprouts.
The hunters, thus, become the hunted and, as food orders rain down, faster and faster, more and more complex, the mobsters unravel at the mercy of this machine. Whatever threat they pose, its nothing on the unknown maitre d’ having a joke — or worse — at their expense.
Written in 1957, it’s an absurdist classic, and the symmetry of Soutra Gilmour’s pipelined design gives it the gloss of a graphic novel, more unreal than it is uncanny. Lloyd plays up the comedy and Dyer and Freeman make a nimble odd couple, fussing around each other’s fraying nerve with perfect rat-a-tat timing. But they stress the double act over the dangerous duo, and “The Dumb Waiter” works best when they pose a real threat.
Freeman’s fidgeting — he pulls a veritable picnic out of his knapsack — suggests the jittery apprehension of a man haunted by his job, but Dyer’s too keen to join in the fun. Rather than mining an unsettling stillness, some psychotic quality, he plays the senior partner with a stiff impatience and fluttering fingers that betray his own nerves — no match for the mystifying terror of the dumb waiter itself.
“A Slight Ache” is stranger by far — less trim, more disturbing. Opening on afternoon tea in a genteel English garden, it zooms in on a teeny instance of torture: Edward and his coy wife Flora drown a rogue wasp in a scalding hot brew, their concentration bordering on sadistic glee. John Heffernan, wearing a ruffled cream suit, leans in and bites his lip as Gemma Whelan, hands held tight and prim, looks on transfixed, almost electrified.
When the pair spot a stranger selling matches at their gate, it’s easy to spot the same twisted impulse kick in — a wariness of intruders and a vindictive protectionism. Edward spies on him from the shed, seeing this outsider as a blot on his idyll, even a threat, while his wife, who invites the matchseller inside, slips into a kind of maternal lust. They see him as increasingly distorted: blind, deaf and disfigured beneath a black balaclava — everything they secretly fear and desire.
Staged as a live radio play, Lloyd stresses the layer of performance at play: The prim exteriors of these civil Little Englanders masks the animal urges, base violence and existential dread beneath. As Heffernan’s Edward unravels, babbling on his back on the floor, Whelan’s Flora goes cross-eyed with lust. As their true selves come out, the clean division between studio setting and fictional scene starts to dissolve.
That’s what makes the two plays so well-matched. Not only do both center on an absence — the dumb waiter as eerie as the matchseller is mute — both juxtapose quotidian niceties with unspeakable acts of violence. The two killers of “The Dumb Waiter” fuss over fixing the tea, while the two well-to-do tea-drinkers of “A Slight Ache” unleash their own reign of terror. Each play also eats its own tail. Just as Pinter’s hitmen become targets, his acquiescent insiders are eventually pushed out. Lloyd suggests that we become our own worst enemies and nightmares.