Six months, seven instalments and scores of stage and screen stars – Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season has been a West End mainstay since September, bringing in face after famous face to collaborate on the legendary playwright’s one-act plays in the theatre that bears his name.
This is the season’s swansong, but there’s more Pinter to come from Lloyd just around the corner – Tom Hiddleston in Betrayal from early March. For now, though, we’ve got Martin Freeman, Danny Dyer, John Heffernan, and Gemma Whelan in two more shorts.
Freeman and Dyer are in The Dumb Waiter, Pinter’s 1957 play about two hitmen hiding and bickering in a basement while they wait for their mark, providing inexplicable food orders to the titular serving device. Heffernan and Whelan star in 1958’s A Slight Ache, as a middle-aged couple whose cosy life is disturbed by a masked match-seller. Lloyd directs both.
But does he bow out with a big hit? Or is this an underwhelming end to his Pinter at the Pinter season? What do the critics make of this final pair of plays and of the enormous undertaking as a whole?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Harold Pinter was something of an unlikely mentor to Danny Dyer, who has previously referred to him as “the most influential man in my life”, casting him in three of his plays. How does the playwright’s protege do alongside Freeman in Lloyd’s revival of The Dumb Waiter?
Most critics reckon Dyer does just fine. He “brings a fidgety physicality and droll belligerence” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), has “an evasive intensity” according to Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★), and is “the perfect epitome of fake assurance”, according to Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★★).
“The way Dyer’s Ben becomes increasingly frazzled as a stream of apparently nonsensical food orders are sent down to them via the room’s dumb waiter is genuinely powerful,” says Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★). “His look of pure terror at a note asking for scampi is something to behold.”
Others, though, think he’s only okay: “He’s got the bulk, the stubble, the accent and the swagger to convince as a thug-for-hire,” writes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★), “yet there’s more surface style than inner steel here”.
Sherlock star Freeman, meanwhile, is “memorably needy and perplexed” for Hitchings, full of “jittery apprehension” for Matt Trueman (Variety), and “all questions and neurotic restlessness” for Taylor.
“Is there an actor in Britain who plays puzzled more vividly and engagingly than Martin Freeman?” asks Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★).
And the play? It’s “Pinteresque to the point of parody” and “fully achieved in its mixture of comedy and menace” continues Taylor, while Trueman labels it “an absurdist classic”.
“It owes much to Hemingway’s The Killers and anticipates Martin McDonagh’s movie In Bruges,” explains Pinter buff Billington. “At the same time, it combines the staccato rhythms of music-hall cross-talk with a political study of power and victimisation.”
The critics are less persuaded over Lloyd’s direction. Taylor think he gets it “spot on”, but Trueman criticises him for how he “plays up the comedy” and Cavendish calling his staging “more filler than killer”.
“The production feels underpowered compared with some of the others in the season,” notes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★). “There’s a lack of intensity and tension.”
“Something – the exactly right brio, perhaps – felt missing,” suggests Tom Birchenough (The Arts Desk, ★★★★).
The lesser-known one-act A Slight Ache was originally a radio play first broadcast in 1959, although it has appeared on stage several times since. Here, Lloyd directs John Heffernan and Game of Thrones’ Gemma Whelan. They play a comfortable couple whose peace is shattered by a menacing match seller.
Both are brilliant, according to the critics. Heffernan has “a perfect mix of military briskness and twitchy insecurity”, says Hitchings, while Lukowski calls him “particularly remarkable as a man who seems to collapse in on himself.”
“Heffernan is hilariously ghastly,” writes Taylor. “He hits the note of patronising palliness with excruciating exactness.”
“Whelan is equally remarkable,” adds Billington. “She adopts a cut-glass accent that gradually yields to a disclosure of her unfulfilled longings: when she urges the match seller, “Speak to me of love”, it is in the breathily urgent tone of a woman who, you infer, has long been denied the joys of sex.
“Heffernan and Whelan are excellent,” confirms Tripney. “Their delivery is pristine, showcasing their impeccable BBC vowels, but they also capture the play’s sense of rottenness and unease.”
The play itself is “very, very creepy” for Lukowski and “a pungent expression of marital and mental disintegration” for Cavendish. Lloyd’s production of it garners acclaim from all corners.
“Lloyd’s production recognises the radio origins of A Slight Ache, staging the play in Soutra Gilmour’s mock-up of a soundproofed recording, replete with an “On Air” light,” describes Taylor. “The actors deliver their lines into microphones.”
Most critics reckon it’s an inspired stroke of staging. “On stage, the match seller is normally a visible presence: sweaty, decrepit and balaclava-helmeted,” explains Billington. “Lloyd, however, follows the conventions of radio drama and leaves him to our imaginations. As a result, it becomes a play about two people projecting their deepest fears and desires on to a fantasy figure.”
His praise is matched elsewhere. Lloyd’s production is “profoundly disturbing” according to Lukowski, and “should leave aficionados and uninitiated alike in seventh heaven” according to Cavendish.
“It’s like watching a Coward comedy strapped into a strait-jacket and bundled into an asylum cell,” Cavendish concludes.
So, what do the critics conclude, now that Pinter at the Pinter is done and dusted? How does Pinter Seven stand against its six forerunners?
Some think that this final double-bill is the highlight of the whole undertaking. It’s “a glorious climax” for Billington, and “the most perfect pairing of all” for Trueman.
“These two plays conclude a season that has itself been full of discoveries,” continues Billington. “It has reminded us that Pinter, while experimenting with form, had a unified imagination. It has also demolished the myth that one-act plays, like short stories, are an inferior form. In Pinter’s hands they are as richly fulfilling as many an inordinate three-hour epic.”
Others, though, think Pinter Seven only patchily powerful, like the work that’s gone before it.
“In the end, this seventh instalment encapsulates both the huge appeal and the more problematic aspects of Lloyd’s project,” concludes Tripney. “It has offered a chance to see Pinter’s work performed by great actors and to appreciate his mastery of menace, while also underlining some of the intriguing thematic and dramatic overlaps between his plays.
“But it has also highlighted the way imagery of sexual violence rippled through the playwright’s early work and the season’s failure to interrogate this fully.”
It’s definitely good, with most critics supplying healthy four-star ratings and Michael Billington awarding it a notable five-star in The Guardian. Some critics aren’t as convinced – The Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish and The Stage’s Natasha Tripney provide three-star write-ups.
A Slight Ache is the stronger of the two plays – Heffernan and Whelan are excellent in Lloyd’s radical, radio staging – but The Dumb Waiter is decent, too, with Dyer and Freeman supplying a detailed double act.
The verdict on Pinter at the Pinter as a whole? An extraordinary endeavour undoubtedly, elevated by some top-notch performances over the past few months. A commendable crash-course in one of Britain’s most powerful playwrights.