The Harold Pinter Theatre continues its season of one-act plays by its namesake with another six hours of rarely-performed material that can – nay, should – be viewed in a single, mammoth sitting.
Pinter Three – there will be a total of seven, running through to next year – is the most challenging collection in the season so far, with Jamie Lloyd once again on directing duty for all 11 short works.
It begins with the dense, elegiac Landscape starring Tamsin Greig and Keith Allen. Their characters, Beth and Duff, sit in the same room, apparently reminiscing about a shared past, until it becomes apparent that their conversation doesn’t marry up. Beth remembers a flirtation with a man on a beach – the way his hands felt on her neck, the solitude of the sand dunes – while Duff, boorish and crass, boasts about getting one over on a man at the pub.
Beth speaks quietly into a microphone while Duff, swearing liberally, enunciates loudly enough to be heard outside the theatre; they no longer operate on the same plane, this apparent couple, no longer able to communicate. It’s a quintessential memory play, poking at the lonely solipsism at the heart of the human experience. It ends with a melancholy cover of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart, which unequivocally sets the tone for what is to come. Unlike the politics and relationships plays in Pinter One and Two, this is a difficult, often uncomfortable afternoon of theatre.
To alleviate this, Lloyd casts a strong contingent of comic actors: Greig and Allen are joined by stand-up Lee Evans and Meera Syal (best known for co-creating and starring in Goodness Gracious Me), as well as the excellent Tom Edden.
In Monologue, Evans shares a drink with an absent friend, remonstrating with an empty chair over lost loves and lingering insecurities, grappling with events that continue to weigh him down like an anchor.
And in A Kind of Alaska – ironically the most memorable play of the group – a woman (Greig) awakes from a coma to discover she has aged almost three decades. As she struggles to come to terms with her situation, the tragic story of her sister’s marriage and divorce from her attentive doctor emerges – he fills the gaps in her memory with the sorrow he’s accrued over the years.
There’s levity too: That’s All is a League of Gentlemen-esque skit in which Evans, Allen and Edden don wigs and, in the style of northern fishwives, have an absurdist conversation about forgetting what day it is. In Trouble in the Works, Evans plays a union rep breaking the news to his manager that, despite fair conditions and generous pay, his workers have simply “gone off” the products the factory produces, especially the “spherical rod ends”. It contains some sumptuous word-play, and leans heavily into Evans’ strength as a physical actor.
Pinter Four features two longer plays, the first, Moonlight, directed by Lyndsey Turner. It’s the story of Andy (Robert Glenister, Life on Mars), a man on his death bed coming to terms with his mistakes and missed opportunities. It’s perhaps the most manifestly Pinter-esque of the plays on this double bill, with the structure of the story breaking down mid-way through, characters appearing to forget each other’s names, and chronology becoming fuzzy and malleable. Andy lusts after a lost love, who he seems to think is the one person who will remember things as they really were; again that tricky proposition of memory.
It ends with a visual flourish courtesy of director Ed Stambollouian’s Night School, a drama written for television. It follows young ex-con Walter, whose overbearing aunt has rented his room to a mysterious young woman. A drum-kit on stage thumps out a beat that’s reflected in the staccato rhythm of the play, in which Walter first attempts to discredit, then seduce, the slinky, pencil-skirted Annie.
More straightforward than most of what’s come before, Night School is a solidly entertaining hour-and-change, reminding you that Pinter can do sharply observed popular drama as well as ruminations on grief and loss.