Watching these two late Pinter one-acters in the major season that bears his name, performed in the theatre that does likewise, I couldn’t help thinking of a remark made by his friend and fellow dramatist, albeit a very different one, Tom Stoppard.
About ten years ago, when the theatre was still called the Comedy, there was a rumour that Pinter, by then aged and ailing, wanted to see it re-christened as the Pinter and was even nudging his influential friends to lobby in that direction. Stoppard suggested that an alternative would be for him to call himself Harold Comedy. It was a joke that Pinter would have been happier to make himself than to be its butt.
I mention it now because these two plays, written respectively at the start and finish of the 1990s, have much of that essentially undercutting and downsizing wit – the kind that sees a scrapping dog beneath the skin of every social dignity. It was always there, of course, right from his early, supposedly menacing and extravagantly misunderstood pieces such as The Room and The Birthday Party. But here, in Party Time’s stark, even crude juxtaposition of social preening and murderous impulses, the humour is positively knockabout.
Alternately focussing on the outwardly privileged and unprivileged guests at a social – or should that be antisocial? – gathering, Pinter instantly turns the inconsequential but competitive chatter about hot towels in an exclusive health spa to the sadistic savouring of facial torture. Under the canny direction of Jamie Lloyd, the guests bunch and part, sometimes bound by their social ranking, other times joining up into an audience-addressing row with a darkly ironic show of troop unity.
Hence such dialogue as this, a world and several decades away from the author’s signature pauses and silences.
“I think this is a gorgeous party, don’t you? I mean, I think it’s such a gorgeous party. I think it’s such fun.”
“We could suffocate every single one of you at a given signal or we could shove a broomstick up each individual arse at another.”
The authorial voice is clear enough, particularly when you think how Pinter himself would not shirk from calling out torturers and dictators in their own salons. Coming from the West End stage these years into a new-ish century, the anger, though autobiographically pure, sounds inevitably dated and reminiscent of Private Eye’s clichéd leftie Dave Spart. Perhaps it always did. Perhaps that was always the lure of Pinter’s easily parodied but strangely, stubbornly unparalleled style. There are moments in both these plays when you could almost be listening to the childishly provocative dialogue of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s long-censored Derek and Clive sketches. Being Pinter, there is always that surly, challenging pull of his unasked question: Naif? Cruel?
Inhumane? You got a problem with that?
Pinter and Lloyd get some tremendous performances from John Simm as the ghastly Terry, Celia Imrie as the languidly posh Melissa, and Abraham Popoola as Jimmy, the hideously abused black, manacled figure who arrives to wreck our evening but who, in the process, makes it. At the risk of giving the game away, this is because the same actor returns as the triumphantly upstaging waiter in the evening’s second half, Celebration. The justice of this is both a poetic and a dramatic one.
It would be a hard act to follow. In a sense, it is precisely that, in its own right, since previous productions of it have been luminous, almost garish, with stars. Keith Allen, Danny Dyer, Lia Williams, Andy de la Tour and Lindsay Duncan were in the original stage cast, while Michael Gambon, James Bolam, Colin Firth, Penelope Wilton, James Fox, Sophie Okonedo and Stephen Rea featured in the television version.
Even the location could be called a celebrity since the restaurant of the setting is based on The Ivy restaurant in the heart of the West End. Here we have Lambert and Matt, a pair of shamelessly elite brothers, played with sinister relish by Ron Cook and Phil Davis. They describe themselves with Pintereseque cheatspeak as “peaceful strategy consultants because we don’t carry guns”. At the next table is a banker called Russell whose self-definition is chillingly accurate. “A totally disordered personality. A psychopath.” Few would quibble. Here again is evidence of Pinter’s apparent despair that a society so ossified by class division as he perceives England’s to be will ever change for the better.
Hence the grim comic inversions, whereby power and influence virtually equate to insensibility and thuggery. Probably impertinent but still tempting to recall Pinter’s own progress from pre-war Hackney Jewish boyhood to marriage to Lord Longford’s eldest daughter Lady Antonia Fraser.
However, it is the figure of the waiter who springs the surprise, turning out to be gifted with a spiky and, yes, authorial eloquence and an appetite for social overview. “My grandfather,” he says, “introduced me to the mystery of life and I’m still in the middle of it. I can’t find the door to get out. My grandfather got out of it. He got right out of it. He left it behind him and he didn’t look back. He got that absolutely right.”
But then he tails off, as if further analysis is beyond him. This pair of Pinter plays do something along the same lines. The diagnosis has a plainness born of rage. The solution is undisclosed. To that extent, the playwright is not as engagé as his life suggested. Watching them I caught myself wondering, as many others
have done, what would have happened – or indeed not happened – if the critic Harold Hobson had not redeemed Pinter’s early play The Birthday Party from an almost universal critical mauling at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958. Sure, Pinter bucked trends and tended to deplore critics. But if one of their number hadn’t himself gone so boldly against the crowd, we would probably not now be watching these seasons of revival.
Review by Alan Franks
A scathing and bitterly amusing attack on the increasingly powerful and narcissistic super-rich, set against the backdrop of terrifying state oppression, the highly pertinent Party Time is paired with Harold Pinter’s final play, Celebration.
Celebration is an irresistible comedy about the vulgarity and ostentatious materialism of the nouveau riche, set in a fashionable London restaurant. An evening of social satire that chimes with our times, directed by Jamie Lloyd.
Cast includes Ron Cook, Phil Davis, Celia Imrie, Gary Kemp, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Abraham Popoola, John Simm, Katherine Kingsley and Eleanor Matsuura
Pinter Six – Party Time / Celebration
The Harold Pinter Theatre
20 December 2018 – 26 January 2019
Directed by Jamie Lloyd