Jamie Lloyd’s lavishly cast and intelligently programmed season of Harold Pinter’s one-act works draws to a close with a double bill of plays steeped in paranoia.
While Lloyd’s production of The Dumb Waiter, pairing Martin Freeman with Danny Dyer, is probably the most hotly anticipated of the season, A Slight Ache is the more intriguing of the two.
Penned in 1958, it was initially written for radio, and this is the basis for Lloyd’s staging. Soutra Gilmour’s cube of a set has been transformed into a soundproofed recording studio, complete with crimson ‘on air’ light. John Heffernan and Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones’ Yara Greyjoy) speak their lines into microphones.
They play a middle-aged, long-married couple whose comfortable life is disrupted by an elderly, masked match-seller. This unseen interloper violates their domesticity, their tidy lives and sacred garden, and seeps into their dreams.
Though too young for the roles, Heffernan and Whelan are excellent. Their delivery is pristine, showcasing their impeccable BBC vowels, but they also capture the play’s sense of rottenness and unease. This is particularly true of the moment at which Whelan’s character starts describing a fantasy/memory about a poacher who raped her. Pinter revels in the ugly juxtaposition between this and her prim discussion of garden plants.
The second play of this double bill, The Dumb Waiter, was written in 1957 though not premiered until 1960. It’s a typically claustrophobic piece, full of taut, rat-a-tat dialogue, but it’s also the more conventionally staged of the two and, conversely, the less satisfying.
Freeman and Dyer play a couple of hitmen waiting in a basement to carry out a job. Though better known these days as the landlord of the Queen Vic, Dyer has form when it comes to Pinter. The playwright was something of a mentor to him and the young Dyer starred in the 2000 premiere of Celebration and in later productions of No Man’s Land and The Homecoming. He displays an ease with the rhythms of the language.
Alongside him, Freeman does a solid enough job, they both hit all the right dramatic beats, but the production feels underpowered compared with some of the others in the season. There’s a lack of intensity and tension.
In the end, this seventh instalment encapsulates both the huge appeal and the more problematic aspects of Lloyd’s project. 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. Its continual glossing over this particular issue has been the most frustrating aspect of an otherwise dizzyingly ambitious undertaking.