Harold Pinter: short plays – 5 stars

The People’s Theatre, Newcastle.

I went with some trepidation to the People’s Studio space on opening night. Pinter’s work can, in the wrong hands, go disastrously wrong, and even in skilled hands can be tough to sit through.

I needn’t have worried. Director Mary MacDonald and the cast have put together a programme of one-act plays and short scenes that intrigue, delight and amuse, and actually work incredibly well together.

The production is book-ended with a couple of hour-long one-acters. A Slight Ache, with themes of insecurity and self-identity, gets us off to a classic Pinter-esque start. The pleasant normality of everyday life for Flora and her husband Edward is thrown into disarray by the entrance of a vague and ominous character, The Matchseller. This figure is imposing, statuesque, silent. (In the original radio version of the play the character appeared to the audience to be a figure of Edward’s imagination.) But despite having no lines, and labouring under a huge coat and a balaclava, Michael Blair does an excellent job of embodying the fear of the unknown felt by Edward. One of those performances where the actor is doing so much by apparently doing nothing.

As the husband and wife, Stuart Laidler and Kate Wilkins display an easy rapport. Their seemingly innocent, throwaway disagreement about the names of the various flowers growing in their garden is amusing and nicely played, and does a good job of hinting at the darker side of their dull, loveless middle-class marriage which later becomes apparent. Wilkins in particular is notable, adeptly moving between subservient suburban housewife, commanding and domineering spouse, and sexual manipulator.

The second one-hour play – the final piece of the night – is A Kind Of Alaska, which Pinter wrote after reading Awakenings by Oliver Sacks. Middle-aged Deborah wakes from a comatose state of sleep after 29 years, still with the mind of a sixteen year old. Her sister Pauline and doctor Hornby are there to attempt to explain her situation whilst withholding some of the more upsetting family news.

As Deborah, Penny Lamport does a superb job. She walks the tightrope of ‘doing child acting’ with ease, and the character’s realisation yet confusion that nearly 30 years of her life have disappeared is handled with subtlety and skill. Rye Mattick as Pauline also impresses. The emotion of seeing her sister’s suffering, the weight of the whole situation of the past thirty years, and the guilt of hiding those family truths from her sister is all rolled up into an understated performance which is at times very moving. As the doctor, Robin Lewsey is outstanding. His performance is nuanced and effortless, maintaining a quiet stillness that is quite mesmerising.

In between these two short plays is a series of six ‘revue sketches’, with all parts played by the six members of the company. The subject matter and settings are varied, but the quality of the performances is not. Each member of the cast displays superb comic skill and timing, and these short scenes – which put me in mind of sketches by Victoria Wood, Alan Bennett, and Fry & Laurie – are a joy to watch.

A simple yet classy design adds to the enjoyment and authenticity of each of the pieces, with some very pleasing attention to detail from the production department.

If you’ve been put off by Pinter in the past, you should give it one last shot; go and see this production at the People’s. If this doesn’t win you round, nothing will!

(originally posted 8 February 2012)

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