Harold Pinter Theatre (venue)
08 February 2019 (released)
The Pinter at the Pinter season concludes with ‘A slight Ache’ and ‘The Dumb Waiter', both written in the late 50’s. These two handers make a beautiful pairing, thrumming with existential dread, their characters gripped with fear of an outsider who might at any moment come inside and destroy them. In both we find Pinter’s pre-occupation with paranoia and power expressed with the absurdist wit and structural precision that made his name.
Most people probably booked tickets in order to see ‘The Dumb Waiter’, starring Pinter’s protégée Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman and they do not disappoint. They play hit men, Ben and Gus, who are waiting in a derelict Birmingham basement, for the signal to shoot their unknown target. As tensions rise, the dumb waiter crashes into life and delivers a note…
Dyer sweats with anxious energy as Ben, the vulnerable bully, who puffs himself up one minute and twitches anxiously the next. Freeman’s Gus who asks too many questions for Ben’s liking is utterly convincing as everyman, no longer happy in his job, disturbed by a recent hit and desperate for a cup of tea and a snack while they wait. It really doesn’t matter if you know or predict the twist at the end – it still arrives with structural elegance and perfect cruelty.
‘A Slight Ache’ is in some ways the wilder of the two and written as a radio play, leaves more scope for director Jamie Lloyd to experiment with. Who would have thought a radio play could be so watchable? Staged as a live recording of the play in the studio, John Heffernan and Gemma Whelan play the actors playing Flora and Edward as well as Flora and Edward themselves which opens the window for multiple perceptions of reality.
The radio play opens with the couple enjoying the summer in their fragrant country home. Flora’s cut-glass tones slice through the studio mic and already somewhat ruffled, Edward becomes obsessed by the need to destroy a wasp in the marmalade. The barely supressed violence increases when the couple invite an old match- seller into their home. We never see the match-seller or hear him speak, we just watch Flora and Edward unravel around him.
At first the radio play is firmly under control. Whelan makes old school sound effects with gravel crunching and glass singing and Edward controls the urge to ‘act out’ the actions he would have performed if it was a stage play. But as the paranoia and delusion takes over, radio mic’s are abandoned, Edward gets tangled and trips on the studio wires and before the final denouement, the ‘live recording’ sign switches off with delicious menace.
It’s a fitting finale to an extraordinary six months of Pinter’s one act plays, a bold concept that has succeeded in bringing the Nobel Prize winners legacy into brilliant focus for a new generation to discover.