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David Benedict: Going back in time is a complicated business

Corey Montague Sholay, Jane Bertish, Rebecca Todd, Theo Fraser Steele and Tom Ross Williams in This Island's Mine

When someone buys me a theatrical time machine, the first place I shall travel to will be the opening of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal [1]. No, not the pared-down, powerful revival that just closed Jamie Lloyd’s remarkable Pinter at the Pinter season. The original in 1978.

No less a figure than Samuel Beckett praised Pinter’s suspenseful, marital masterpiece with its now famously backwards-time-travelling script, before he or anyone else had even seen Peter Hall’s production with its ideal cast. Penelope Wilton played Emma, married to Robert, played by Daniel Massey, but also having a long-standing affair with Jerry who is Robert’s best friend, played by Michael Gambon.

Casting that trio for their enviable ability to make thoughts and undercurrents legible would have been enough, but additional factors lent frissons to their performances. Firstly, Wilton and Massey were married off stage as well as on stage. Secondly, as Hall observed on the first day of rehearsals: “I’ve cast you because you are all comedians.”

On the surface, that might seem a strange qualification for acting in a high-stakes, secrets-and-lies drama, but comic timing is precisely what drives Betrayal in terms of its plot, its dialogue and Pinter’s hallmark: the pauses. If anyone would be able to create and animate those super-charged moments of high tension between characters, it would be those three. So I really don’t know what possessed me in 2003 to ask Wilton if she was going to go to the revival of the play that was then running. Exceedingly graciously, instead of pointing out what a dolt I was, the mistress of “less is more” very gently shook her head.

I was reminded of the complicated business of going back in time last week at a performance at the King’s Head Theatre of Philip Osment’s This Island’s Mine [2]. Ardent Theatre Company’s production, gracefully directed by Philip Wilson, was a warm, eloquent joy in its own right. It was a hugely welcome revisiting of a neglected, wide-ranging group portrait of London lives and loves in the late 1980s. But for me it had added resonance because in 1988, I was the assistant director/musical director on the original Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company production.

Since the original had been such a demanding – but successful – experience across a UK tour, bookended by two London runs, I’d worried that going back after all this time would elicit a study in compare and contrast. But in reality – alongside memories unspooling in my head – I not only appreciated the changes in everything from design and direction to the performances, I realised the rare, distilled depth of compassion in Osment’s eloquent writing. How many other so-called ‘gay plays’ pivot around young love, missed opportunities and an elderly Jewish woman and her ageing cat?

I now see even more strongly its roots in unexpected places, not least in the groundbreaking theatre techniques of Mike Alfreds with Shared Experience and Method and Madness theatre companies. With the characters explaining and setting themselves in their own novelistic narration, the writing predates the recent and more cumbersome The Inheritance by three decades.

Obituary: Philip Osment – ‘Actor, director and playwright who was a mainstay of Gay Sweatshop’ [3]

There are also echoes from beyond theatre. Osment’s thrillingly Dickensian mix of lives coincidentally linked by a single household points to Norman Collins’ wonderfully evocative 1945 novel London Belongs to Me (later filmed, then a 1970s TV series), not to mention Armistead Maupin’s equally deftly plotted Tales of the City. Both Maupin and Osment’s delight in drawing together outwardly disparate characters across continents and generations may seem outlandish in conception but proves astonishingly satisfying in performance.

This Island’s Mine refers to a thread about a young black gay actor wrestling with the role of Caliban in a production of The Tempest. By coincidence, Samuel Adamson’s new play, Wife [4], which just opened at London’s Kiln Theatre, also uses theatre as a metaphor.

Springing from four productions of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House across decades and generations, Adamson looks back – and forward – in, if not anger, a sharply comic yet moving examination of lesbian, gay and queer lives.

Like Osment, he wittily uses the past as a prism through which to study the vexed present. Still more impressively, both writers focus on the world beyond the navel-gazing that often besets LGBT+ plays, which are too often measurable merely by the acreage of gay male flesh on display in the publicity material and/or the performance.

Happily, Adamson was there to witness the success of Indhu Rubasingham’s premiere. And Philip Osment was at the reopening of This Island’s Mine so he also experienced the time-machine effect of revisiting his own work. But it was touch and go as he was seriously ill. A week later he died. I can think of no finer tribute to his underrated writing than this revival. Fingers crossed for its hoped-for transfer.

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict [5]

This Island’s Mine review at King’s Head, London – ‘worthy revival’ [2]