Pinter at the Pinter, Jamie Lloyd’s star-studded West End season of one-act Harold Pinter plays at the theatre named after the legendary playwright, continues apace. After the horror and humour of Pinter One and Pinter Two, we hit the halfway point with Pinter Three and Pinter Four. Pinter, Pinter, Pinter.
The third edition, staged by Lloyd himself, features a set of shorter sketches spanning the writer’s career, bookended by two larger works – 1969’s Landscape and 1982’s A Kind of Alaska. The fourth is a double bill of 1993’s Moonlight and 1960’s Night School, directed by Lyndsey Turner and Ed Stambollouian respectively.
Once again, Lloyd has roped in a sparkling cast. Tamsin Greig, Keith Allen, Tom Edden, Meera Syal and comedian Lee Evans (making a rare return from retirement) in Pinter Three. Robert Glenister, Brid Brennan, Janie Dee and more star in Pinter Four.
But do these big names live up to their billing? Do Lloyd, Turner and Stambollouian wrap their heads around Pinter’s potent plays? Where do Pinters Three and Four rank in the season so far?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Pinter Three kicks off with Landscape, a practically plotless two-hander featuring Keith Allen and Tamsin Greig as a man and a woman in a country kitchen, him angrily ranting, her romantically reminiscing.
The play is an “eerie two-hander” imbued with a “nerve-jangling vitality” according to Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★), while Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★) isn’t the only one to observe how “this sad, mutually lonely couple put you in mind of some of Beckett’s double acts”.
“The melancholy ache and the defensive wall between them are most riveting,” writes Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★), while Will Longman (London Theatre, ★★★★) warns that this is “Pinter at his most abstract.”
“It’s opaque, yet the language is so vivid, the performances so driven and detailed, that it’s gripping and evocative all the same,” reasons Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★).
“The piece is usually characterised as being about a dysfunctional marriage, but that feels too trite an explanation for this wild, disturbing take from Lloyd, which seems to burrow down into some darker, intangible truth about the fundamental incomprehensibility of human nature,” analyses Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut, ★★★★).
Pinter Three closes with A Kind Of Alaska, a play based on Oliver Sacks’ 1973 study Awakenings. Greig returns to play a woman awaking from a decades-long coma – a role originated by Judi Dench – tended to by her doctor and her sister.
“It is a lesser work than Landscape, a blunter instrument, but its placing at the end makes sense,” writes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★). “Another play about being locked in the past.”
“Pinter, characteristically, is less interested in the drama of the awakening than in the unknowability of where the woman has been,” explains Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★), while certified Pinter-buff Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) argues that “Lloyd’s production makes clear that the real tragedy lies in the irreparable gulf between the doctor who has lovingly tended her (Allen) and his estranged wife (a bleakly discomfited Meera Syal).”
“It manages to be ungooey (as you expect from Pinter), but tender (as you don’t)” Maxwell points out.
Most critics agree on the skits and sketches that slot in between Landscape and A Kind of Alaska: “Between the two come sketches and solos, some pretty forgettable, others very funny, nearly all of them dealing in loneliness, communication gaps and fantasy,” describes Shuttleworth.
“Great for Pinter completists, but their inclusion does change the tone of the night significantly, and from a strictly art perspective the night might be better without them, though they certainly help you decompress between the main pieces,” says Lukowski.
Moonlight, the 1993 one-act play that opens Pinter Four, sees Lyndsey Turner direct Robert Glenister and Brid Brennan as Andy, a terminally ill civil servant, and Bel, his subdued wife. Al Weaver and Dwane Walcott are two estranged sons.
Most critics aren’t particularly effusive. Some think the play is a bit of a dud, others think Turner’s production lets it down. It’s “elusive to the point of irritation” according to Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★) and “probably one of the most difficult plays in the Pinter season so far” according to Longman (London Theatre,★★★).
“It’s difficult to keep up and fill in the gaps between the events,” Longman continues. “Many lines feel relatively insignificant and a large proportion of the play consists of Andy’s reminiscing about his life. Whether his memory serves him well or not is beside the point when it simply becomes dull, repetitive dialogue.”
Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) agrees, writing that the play “features dialogue so self-conscious it almost sounds like pastiche and a cryptic aspect even the Bletchley Park code-breakers would have been pushed to crack.”
Billington and Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★), meanwhile, are disappointed in Turner’s direction. His production is “a bit clunky” for Billington, and “cumbersome” for Taylor.
“It is bewildering, and, worse, uninviting,” sums up Maxwell (Times, ★★★). “For all the dreamlike touches in Lyndsey Turner’s production, it plays like Pinter pastiching himself.”
The second play in the Pinter Four double-bill, Night School, directed by Ed Stambollouian, is better received. It features Al Weaver as an ex-con investigating the shady double-life led by his aunt’s mysterious female lodger, played by Jessica Barden.
“This central intrigue is rather flimsy,” writes Tripney (The Stage, ★★★). “But the play is interesting for its evocation of London’s East End at the very beginning of the 1960s, full of seedy clubs and the men who run them, gangsters, and poky boarding houses. Ed Stambollouian’s production captures all of this, bringing out the play’s humour while injecting it with energy and menace.”
“Ed Stambollouian directs with a real style, using Abbie Finn’s drummer to underscore the action, and making the bare bones of Soutra Gilmour’s cuboid set come to life with glittering curtains dropping from the ceiling,” describes Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★).
“It’s a relief to have some energy pumped into the proceedings, and a comprehensible plot to follow,” adds Longman.
There are plenty of famous names to focus on for the critics in the third and fourth instalments of Pinter at the Pinter, but it’s Tamsin Greig and Lee Evans in Pinter Three that garner the lion’s share of the praise.
According to Billington, Greig “reveals an emotional range that suggests nothing in the classic or modern rep is now beyond her”.
In Landscape, she “brings a rapt stillness” for Crompton, while for Longman she’s “pretty captivating” and “spellbinding” according to Swain.
“Greig is very fine here but exceptionally so in the revival that concludes the evening,” agrees Cavendish. In A Kind of Alaska, he writes: “Greig is a turning kaleidoscope of child-like wonder, droll disinhibition and scrabbling panic.”
“Greig is immensely poignant as the girl-woman, her voice and mannerisms still those of the teenager suspended within the middle-aged body, her mix of joy and terror very touching,” chimes Shuttleworth, while Lukowski describes her performance as “genuinely phenomenal, a mess of raw emotions and primal guilt as the stunned woman-girl”.
“The production also provides a reminder of what an instinctive and gifted physical comedian Lee Evans is”, points out Tripney. “There is seemingly no gesture or expression that he cannot make funny. He’s also an actor of considerable ability.”
“Evans (emerging from lamented retirement) bestows his hilarious gifts for simian posturing, quick gurns and blank looks on a flurry of enjoyable skits and a haunting piece, Monologue, in which a solitary male addresses mock-jaunty remarks at an empty chair standing in for an absent other, apparently an old friend-cum-sexual rival,” concurs Cavendish.
“You can see why actors love Pinter,” concludes Crompton. “He gives them such a chance to shine.”
The third and fourth instalments of Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season apparently offer the high and low points of the endeavour so far.
Pinter Three, with its combination of dark, depressing dramas and silly sketches, and two cracking performances from Greig and Evans, is almost universally well-received. It’s “terrific” according to Billington and “the best of the Pinter bunch so far” according to Longman. Four stars all round.
Pinter Four, on the other hand, with its uneven double-bill of lesser-known works, is probably the patchiest so far. A slew of three-star ratings mean it’s not terrible at all – it’s just the weakest work in a strong season.