The Birthday Party, and sees the playwright make no bones about the fact that his style is going to be eerie and ambiguous. Soutra Gilmour’s revolve stays still this time as a single, large but comparatively cosy room, but the rest of the boarding house it’s in is as much a character in the short play as anything else: Rose Hudd (Jane Horrocks) knows she has neighbours but doesn’t seem to know them; she’s fascinated with who might live in the dark, damp basement, and thinks people also live in the floors above them, but nobody seems to know how many floors the building actually has.
It plays out in fifty minutes of real time on a freezing cold night during which Rose sits tight in her room, but once her almost-silent husband Bert (Rupert Graves) leaves her privacy keeps getting interrupted by unexpected visitors.
First Mr and Mrs Sands (Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi) visit, searching for the landlord because they’ve heard there’s a room available to rent; much to Rose’s consternation it’s her own beloved room they want to take over. Then the elusive landlord Mr Kidd (Nicholas Woodeson) arrives bringing along Riley (Colin McFarlane,) the mysterious blind man who’s been hiding out in the basement and apparently brings a highly personal message that Rose really doesn’t want to hear. Horrocks is excellent as the nervous housewife thrown into increasingly disturbing situations in what she thought was the safety of her own home, and this idea of the sinister pervading into the place you thought was safest feels like Pinter really setting out his stall for what he’d attempt with his later plays. In the context of having seen so many of them in the space of a few months though, The Room’s impenetrability doesn’t make it stand out much from the rest in the season.
After the interval one of the few in the season I’ve seen before, the most overtly comic piece as the Controller of a cab firm (McFarlane) tries to get a Driver (Graves) to take on a seemingly straightforward job, but finds him driving around through the night in a dazed state. The actors play up to the comic lack of communication between their characters and the play gets a lot of laughs, but as it becomes apparent the Driver is not alone in the car Victoria Station takes on a more sinister edge. It’s good, but for me the best of the evening is the final play, 1981’s Family Voices, which as the title suggests started life as a radio play. Thallon takes centre stage for this one as Voice 1 (of 3,) a young man recently moved out of the family home into a city boarding house.
The play takes the form of letters between him and his mother Voice 2 (Horrocks,) but it soon becomes apparent that while these letters may be getting written, they’re not getting sent, as Voice 2 hasn’t heard from her son and is worried, while Voice 1 doesn’t seem to have got the news that his father died some months earlier. Thallon brings to life the numerous other residents of the boarding house, and as they become increasingly grotesque caricatures the question mark hangs over the play of what exactly his real circumstances are; he paints a fantastical picture of the new family he’s built to replace his biological one. It’s a melancholy but absorbing piece and features Luke Thallon in boxer shorts so it’s all good – as well as, appearing on the same bill as The Room, showing Pinter still populating his plays with sinister men called Riley a quarter of a century later.
Pinter Five - The Room / Victoria Station / Family Voices by Harold Pinter is booking in repertory until the 26th of January at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours including interval.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.