We’ve reached the fifth instalment of Jamie Lloyd’s season of Pinter’s one-act plays, but only now do we arrive at The Room, Pinter’s first play, written in 1957.
It’s a fascinating opportunity to see him carving out his identity as a writer. 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.
Jane Horrocks and Rupert Graves play Mr and Mrs Hudd, a married couple living in a rooming house. She talks up a storm, while he never says a word. The world outside their room is made to seem ominous. Each new visitor adds to this sense of dread: Nicholas Woodeson as their loquacious landlord, Emma Naomi and Luke Thallon as a young couple who say they are interested in taking a room in the house, but seem more intent on intimidation, and Colin McFarlane as a mysterious blind man.
Horrocks anchors the piece, radiating terror even when chattering away about tea and bacon. Patrick Marber’s direction brings out the play’s latent violence. The last few minutes are almost unbearably tense, as Graves, silent throughout, nears the point of explosion.
Throughout the season, the plays have been grouped intelligently, echoing each other in interesting ways, and that’s also true here.
The Room and another longer piece – Family Voices – are sandwiched around Victoria Station, a two-hander written in 1982. It takes the form of a dialogue between a taxi dispatcher and one of his drivers. While it could no doubt be played straight, Marber plays it broadly for laughs. McFarlane revels in the role of the increasingly exasperated dispatcher as he deals with a man who does not know where he is – neither geographically nor metaphysically, it seems. McFarlane is great, as is Graves as the bewildered driver, but it feels tonally out of step with the other two plays.
The triple bill concludes with Family Voices, a radio play first broadcast in 1981. Thallon plays a young man who has fled his home and ended up at yet another sinister rooming house, inhabited by members of the same, strange family. Horrocks plays his mother, desperately searching for her missing son. Graves plays the young man’s father.
Thallon gets to play a series of exaggerated characters. He’s very good at this, and Graves once again is excellent as his dead dad, but there’s an inevitably static quality to the piece that the quality of the performances can’t override.
Despite some superb acting, particularly from Graves, this is the least satisfying instalment of the Pinter project to date, but in Marber’s gripping production of The Room, it provides an excellent opportunity to see the shaping of a young playwright.