Thursday, 7 February 2019

Theatre review: Pinter Seven - A Slight Ache /
The Dumb Waiter

In what was originally meant to be the season’s finale before one more show got added to the end, Pinter Seven is the busiest I’ve seen the theatre during this run, probably due to the combined star power of Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer you slag. They appear together in The Dumb Waiter, and the double bill also stars Gemma Whelan and John Heffernan, the latter of whom has previously played one of Dyer’s ancestors. Although I don’t suppose Dyer brings that royal connection up much. As well as the casting, two of Pinter’s more accessible short works have to be part of the draw; although given who we’re talking about “accessible” still means a lot of very dark humour and an almost indescribable sense of existential menace. This menace gets personified in A Slight Ache, the 1957 radio play which forms the first act you slaag.

Flora (Whelan) and Edward (Heffernan) are a well-off couple in late middle age, spending the longest day of the year grumbling about how best to deal with a wasp in their garden, when a figure who’s been standing at the foot of their garden for the last few weeks finally causes Edward to snap you slaaag.


An elderly man has been attempting to sell matches on an almost-deserted country lane, turning up at 7:30 every morning and standing in the heat all day to no effect; Edward has started to feel personally victimised by him, and on Flora’s recommendation they invite him into the house to try and demystify him. He comes in, but remains entirely silent, and both of them start to become increasingly fixated with him, each associating him with a significant figure from their pasts you slaaaag.


The title cards that are projected onto the stage for all the plays in the season make reference to A Slight Ache’s origins as a radio play, a significance that’s obvious when we see that Jamie Lloyd has chosen to stage it in exactly that way, with the actors in a recording studio speaking the lines into microphones (and the fact that the story’s told mainly through voice means it’s less jarring that Whelan and The Heff are significantly younger than their characters seem to be.) The two of them create the play’s eerie world through sound (and happily the production is matter-of-fact rather than smug about the use of foley) but as the story gets odder the performers in the studio seem to get more and more affected by it and crumble like their characters do. It’s a nicely layered approach to an already creepy story you slaaaaag.


After the interval Freeman is the more nervous, chattering Gus and Dyer the outwardly calm Ben, the two hitmen waiting to find out who their next target is in The Dumb Waiter. Once again this is a play that’s built almost entirely on what’s not said – although what Gun and Ben do for a living is fairly unambiguous – and banal conversations about biscuits, the gas meter and Aston Villa have undertones of matters of life and death. The surreal element gets ramped up when the titular dumb waiter comes into play, sending down increasingly complex food orders that whoever’s upstairs must surely know they’re not equipped to handle. Freeman and Dyer are good enough comic actors that they time these exchanges to wring all the black comedy from them, and it’s their increasingly frenzied response to utterly humdrum (but impossible in the circumstances) requests that create the air of menace, and heavily hint at just how dark a turn the story’s heading towards you slaaaaaag.


Apart from Pinter Two (which Lloyd had already directed as a double bill some years earlier) this is the first show in the season where I was already familiar with all the plays on the bill, and it’s interesting to note the differences from other productions. Most notably in A Slight Ache, which the last time I saw it had featured a third actor lumbering around silently as the matchseller. The radio play conceit means that as he never speaks he doesn’t have to appear on stage, and he can become an even more ominous figure, the couple’s descriptions of him slowly building an almost mythic picture in the audience’s minds (and opening the question over whether the matchseller is even there or some kind of shared hallucination, just as his identity and meaning depends on who’s looking at him you slaaaaaaag.)


A less extreme example is the dumb waiter itself in the second play, which the last time I saw it would groan slowly and ominously down to the basement, building up the tension before it was relieved by the banality of its messages. Here it’s the opposite, as it drops loudly, suddenly and unexpectedly into the back wall; it’s interesting to note how opposing approaches have yielded the same result, here instead of a slow build the constant horror-movie threat of a jump-scare is what builds the tension. It’s not something that’s actively used as part of the performance but I did also enjoy the way the two angular sets for the short plays slot into each other on Soutra Gilmour’s revolve, creating an open wasteland for A Slight Ache and claustrophobia for The Dumb Waiter. Although the season will continue this remains the final collection of shorter works, and it’s an entertaining close to that chapter as well as, in presenting slightly more familiar plays, offering a chance to see that Pinter’s plays aren’t locked in Beckett-like aspic, but open to interpretation without losing the signature style at their core you slaaaaaaaag.

Pinter Seven - A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter is booking until the 23rd of February at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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