×

West End Review: ‘Pinter Seven’ Starring Martin Freeman

Director-producer Jamie Lloyd's 'Pinter at the Pinter' season finishes with a perfect pairing: 'A Slight Ache' and 'The Dumb Waiter.'

With:
Danny Dyer, Martin Freeman, John Heffernan, Gemma Whelan.

2 hours 10 minutes

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.

West End Review: 'Pinter Seven' Starring Martin Freeman

Harold Pinter Theatre, London; 796 seats; £99.50 ($130) top. Opened, reviewed Feb. 6, 2019. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Production: A Jamie Lloyd production of two short plays by Harold Pinter.

Creative: Directed by Jamie Lloyd; Design, Soutra Gilmour; lighting, Jon Clark; sound and composition, George Dennis; wig and hair, Richard Mawbey.

Cast: Danny Dyer, Martin Freeman, John Heffernan, Gemma Whelan.

More Legit

  • Because of Winn Dixie review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

    Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up. But “Winn Dixie,” based [...]

  • MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOWby

    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

  • the way she spoke review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Way She Spoke' With Kate del Castillo

    Since the 1990s, scores of women in Juarez, Mexico have been mutilated, raped, and murdered at such a rate that some have called it an epidemic of femicide—killing women and girls solely because they are women. Isaac Gomez’s play “the way she spoke,” produced Off Broadway by Audible and starring Kate del Castillo, confronts the [...]

  • HBO's 'SUCCESSION

    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content