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Jon Culshaw Jon Culshaw as 'The Pres' in Pinter One. Photo by Marc Brenner

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Pinter One and Pinter Two
to October 20 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton St, London WC2
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Published on October 3, 2018
www.pinteratthepinter.com

For the next six months at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End, the excellent Jamie Lloyd, who has form with Pinter, has put together a season all of Pinter’s one act plays. Ten years on from the Nobel Prize winner’s passing, he’s assembled an impressive, starry, cast.

What’s clear from the first two batches is what a brilliant idea this has been. The first two couldn't be more contrasting, Pinter One is a dark and unrelenting selection of his more overtly political work, while Two is a more jaunty and entertaining interpretation of two early pieces. Both are the quintessence of theater in very differing ways, and display the sheer virtuosity of the man.

Pinter One comprises 7 playlets concerned with themes of power and how despotic regimes deploy language as a weapon, both in the public and private spheres. Press Conference is given by a Secret Service Chief, newly promoted to Culture Minister, and Jonjo O'Neill is totally chilling. The Pres and an Officer (sic) has Jon Culshaw deploying his perfect Trump impersonation in a brief sketch which, amazingly, could have been written about the 45th President.

Pinter was a genius at pinning down the language of the bully. In The New World Order two political thugs have a battle of wits whilst taking a break from torturing a hooded, naked, figure – a political prisoner.

Mountain Language, inspired by the language laws against the Kurds, is a chilling illustration or bureaucracy gone rancid as families of political prisoners wait for hours in the cold outside a prison and are taunted by officialdom. Ashes to Ashes, one of the longer pieces, has Kate O'Flynn, who is totally heart breaking, as a woman who has been traumatized by a previous atrocity and is trying to find an anchor in a new but ambivalent relationship with a lover (Paapa Essiedu). It's a tense and ambiguous piece and is distilled Pinter.

The standout from 'One' though is One for the Road, where a Security Minister relentlessly plays with a stunned prisoner (Essiedu) and his family while helping himself to shots of whisky. Sir Antony Sher is the personification of the steel fist in the velvet glove and he holds us rapt for 25 mins. You wonder how he can sleep at night after this.

David Suchet David Suchet in Pinter Two. Photo by Marc Brenner

After this, Pinter Two is like the dawn of a bright new morning. In The Lover the curtain goes up on a dayglow pink '60s home to the soundtrack of a cheeky cha-cha. We encounter a dull young middle class couple (a lively John Macmillan and Hayley Squires) who seem to be living a rich fantasy life whereby he goes off to the office, while she prepares for the arrival of her lover, the twist being that he returns in the role of the lover. While the sexual politics obviously dates the piece it nevertheless is a witty exploration of the Tender Trap and what can be done about secret desires and infidelities.

In previous productions this was a quite sober and even chilling piece, but here Lloyd takes it in a new direction by dialling up the campness. It's marriage as 'performance'.

The second half of 'Two' is The Collection and Lloyd ramps up the camp quotient even more here to the extent that it's like watching Almodovar, where someone has spiced the gazpacho.

Harry (David Suchet) is a fastidious rag trade doyen trying to hold on to Bill (Russell Tovey), his young stud of a lover when John Macmillan appears accusing Bill of having seduced his wife on a business trip to Leeds.

Laurence Olivier filmed this piece for Granada in the '70s and Suchet seems to be channelling that performance while mining each line for a fruity double entendre. It's a gloriously queeny performance and a total crowd pleaser. Tovey's erotic capital (he spends most of it in his underpants) is exploited to the hilt here and he and Squires and Macmillan match Suchet in sheer finesse but while this take is witty, there is a sense too that it destabilizes the piece.

There are 5 more batches of Pinter short plays to come but this is an auspicious beginning.

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