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Pinter at the Pinter Five and Six starring John Simm, Celia Imrie and Rupert Graves – review round-up

The Company in Pinter Six. Photo: Marc Brenner The Company in Pinter Six. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Pinter at the Pinter, Jamie Lloyd’s season of one-act Pinter plays at the West End theatre bearing the playwright’s name, rolls on into the new year, lighting up 2019 with two more star-studded instalments. Bear with it – there’s only one more edition to come: Betrayal, starring Tom Hiddleston.

For Pinter Five, Lloyd has handed the reigns over to writer and director Patrick Marber. Rupert Graves and Jane Horrocks lead a six-strong cast in a triple-bill of revivals: 1957’s The Room (Pinter’s first play), 1982’s Victoria Station, and 1981’s Family Voices.

Lloyd is back in charge for Pinter Six, directing John Simm, Celia Imrie, Gary Kemp, Ron Cook, and others in revivals of Celebration, Pinter’s last play, which premiered in 2000, and Party Time, which first debuted in 1991.

But how well do Pinters Five and Six stack up next to previous productions? Do the critics think the crack cast can cope with Pinter’s powerful plays? Does Lloyd see the new year in with style? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Nicholas Woodeson and Rupert Graves in Pinter Five. Photo Marc Brenner
Nicholas Woodeson and Rupert Graves in Pinter Five. Photo Marc Brenner

Pinter at the Pinter – Faltering five

Pinter Five sees Lloyd finally arrive at the playwright’s first work – The Room. Written in 1957, it sees a married couple in a rooming house plagued by a series of loquacious visitors. And most critics think Marber’s production serves it superbly.

“It’s a fascinating opportunity to see him carving out his identity as a writer,” says Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★). “Many of the tropes that would come to define him are already in evidence – a keen ear for speech patterns, a way of making the most mundane utterance feel deeply unsettling, a pervading sense of menace. The pieces are all in place.”

“Watching it in this sensitive, powerfully acted revival,” chimes Michael Church (Independent, ★★★★), “you marvel at how strongly formed the dramatist’s creative identity seems to have been from the outset. The atmosphere of undefined menace; the surreal banalities of everyday speech; the sense of treacherous, dizzying chasms lurking beneath the crust of diurnal existence; the horror of intruders invading personal space.”

Marber’s revival is “devastating” according to Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). “Marber directs all three plays with absolute control,” she writes, “allowing space for the language to breathe while never losing his precise overall sense of the multiple layers within each piece.”

But if there’s unanimous praise for The Room, it’s a different story with its two companion pieces: Victoria Station, a 10-minute comic sketch featuring a cab driver and his controller, and Family Voices, a radio play about a young runaway in another sinister rooming house.

Victoria Station is definitely funny – “a joy”, according to Crompton, “hilariously macabre” according to Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★), “a broad, amusing two-hander” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★) – but some critics think Marber might have mishandled it.

“Marber does such a fine job of conveying the creeping existential menace of The Room, that it’s hard to quite fathom why he throws all subtlety to the wind on 1981’s Victoria Station,” writes Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★). “All its creeping darkness is traded away for laughs.”

Some critics think Family Voices finds the sweet spot again. It’s “an exquisitely crafted, quasi-epistolary evocation of personal and familial disintegration” according to Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★).

Others, though, think it suffers on stage, instead of on air as it was intended. “It’s a decent piece of writing, but static on stage, and Marber hardly finds a way to turn it into a grand flourish to cap a night that emphatically peaks in the first half,” says Lukowski.

It has “an inevitably static quality” agrees, Tripney, who concludes by calling Pinter Five “the least satisfying instalment of the Pinter project to date.”

Tracy Ann Oberman, Gary Kemp, John Simm and Phil Davis in Pinter Six. Photo: Marc Brenner
Tracy Ann Oberman, Gary Kemp, John Simm and Phil Davis in Pinter Six. Photo: Marc Brenner

Pinter at the Pinter – Superb six

Pinter Five stages Pinter’s first work, Pinter Six his swansong – 2000’s Celebration, written eight years before the playwright’s death. It’s accompanied by another late work, 1991’s Party Time.

“I myself once paired Party Time with Celebration in a drama school production partly on the pragmatic grounds each play had nine characters,” reminisces Billington. “But Jamie Lloyd’s exuberant revival reminds us they are even more strongly riveted because both are about the insulation from reality of the super-rich.”

Both are well received by the critics. Party Time, which sees rich revellers relax in a private club while revolution rages outside, is called “queasily prescient” by Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★), and “a funny, unnerving evocation of the bubble of extreme privilege at the top of a dictatorship” by Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★).

“Unsettling and queasy, the play is full of haunting images of power misused,” concurs Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). “It leaves a lingering sense of unease, of the darkness dwelling beneath an apparently civilised veneer.”

Celebration, meanwhile, with its simple structure of six diners at a swanky London restaurant, is called “a sustained act of snarling caricature at the expense of the crude and rude nouveau riche” by Cavendish, and “a gem” by Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★★).

It’s only Tripney and Lukowski that raise reservations, both over the caricatured characters’ East End origins. According to Tripney, “the characters’ coarseness and cultural ignorance” is “entangled with their class” in a way that “strikes a sour note”, while according to Lukowski, “Lloyd is in danger of making the play feel a little sneery.”

Elsewhere, though, Lloyd’s revivals of both plays are equally praised. Crompton calls them “Rolls Royce productions of clarity and intelligence”, Treneman lauds them as “an absolute wow”, and even Lukowski, despite his reservations, concedes that “Lloyd can direct the hell out of a Harold Pinter play”.

“As his Pinter at the Pinter season heads towards the home stretch, the swaggering pizzazz of Pinter Six is a real shot of adrenaline,” he assesses; “It has taken a while but this season is at last beginning to fly,” agrees John Nathan (Metro, ★★★★).

Abraham Popoola in Pinter Six. Photo: Marc Brenner
Abraham Popoola in Pinter Six. Photo: Marc Brenner

Pinter at the Pinter – A cracking cast

As has been the case throughout this Pinter at the Pinter season, Lloyd has assembled a stellar line-up of actors: John Simm, Celia Imrie, Jane Horrocks, Rupert Graves, Ron Cook, Gary Kemp and more feature here.

In Pinter Five, both Horrocks and Graves are widely praised. In The Room, Horrocks produces “a nice turn full of suppressed hysteria” according to Lukowski and “a wonderfully well-sustained portrait” according to Church, while Graves is called “profoundly sinister” by Lukowski and “can make flicking through a newspaper seem an act of violence” according to Hitchings.

They’re both equally good in Family Voices – Cavendish praises them for their “pitch-perfect tragi-comic detail”, while Colin McFarlane is also admired for his comedic turn in Victoria Station. He gives “a brilliant display of baffled rage” according to Billington.

In Pinter Six, meanwhile, the entire cast is showered with acclaim, as is designer Soutra Gilmour.

“All the performances are first rate”, writes Tripney. “Simm in particular can convey repulsion with a single twitch of his lip. Soutra Gilmour’s costume design for both pieces is magnificent – in Party Time everything is almost oppressively sleek and black; in Celebration, it’s all Lurex, snakeskin and questionable pastel jackets.”

“Everyone is excellent,” confirms Crompton, “from Cook and Davis’ gangster brothers, revelling in the effect of fine dining, to Gary Kemp’s smarmy maitre d’, to Abraham Popoola’s charismatic waiter.”

Pinter at the Pinter – Is it any good?

The fifth and sixth instalments of Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season are pretty well received, with a score of four-star reviews for both parts, and heaps of praise for the two star-studded casts.

Pinter Five’s revival of The Room is particularly praised, even if there are a few question marks over Patrick Marber’s handling of the other two pieces. Pinter Six, meanwhile, is almost universally admired, with a few critics suggesting it’s the high-point of the entire enterprise so far.

And so, on to the home straight. Only one more episode to come. Surely cause for a celebration?

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