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Kit Benjamin

Review: PINTER TWO at The Harold Pinter Theatre

David Suchet in Pinter Two Pinter Two consists of two, relatively early one-act comedies by the man himself and is the second in a series of seven collections of Pinter’s shorter works being produced at the Harold Pinter Theatre over the next few months. The season appears to have had theatre and TV names queuing up to participate and is curated, and mostly directed, by Jamie Lloyd, who probably deserves some sort of medal.

Act one of Pinter Two is The Lover, featuring John Macmillan and Hayley Squires with (SPOILER ALERT) a red-herring appearance from Russell Tovey as a milkman who is NOT the lover. Played on a set designed by Soutra Gilmour that could have come from Bournemouth’s end-of-the-pier theatre (and that’s not a criticism of design choices or set construction, it’s hilariously appropriate), it starts out as a sort of absurdist sex farce, with lines reminiscent of Pirandello, delivered straight out front with pronunciation that the BBC would have been proud of in 1962.

Richard comes home from work, inquires what’s for dinner, and asks with polite curiosity if his wife Sarah’s lover has visited today which, it transpires, he has, just as Richard has been to visit his mistress/whore. So, we have a thoroughly bourgeois couple living a sexually unconventional lifestyle and it’s funny because it’s incongruous. For about twenty minutes, we’re laughing. And then the lover comes to visit and turns out to be Richard with a different jacket and a funny walk, and Sarah is the whore, complete with the shiniest of PVC frocks. The mood darkens as it becomes increasingly clear that Richard feels he’s the victim of this arrangement and feels paradoxically abandoned and betrayed by it.

A more mature Pinter would surely have guided us expertly and seamlessly from light to dark, chipping away at the glossy veneer without us noticing. Here, unfortunately, it all feels a bit clunky and too much like hard work; we don’t care all that much about Richard and Sarah’s dilemma, we just know we’re not laughing any more. Happily, the excellent John Macmillan and Hayley Squires soldier on regardless, ensuring no more momentum is lost than is avoidable.

Act two is The Collection, another early 60s comedy that is centred around a story, which may be a lie, told by Stella (Hayley Squires) to her husband James (John Macmillan) about how she and Bill (Russell Tovey) have had sex in a hotel (or not). James goes to challenge Bill and, in the process, involves Bill’s partner Harry (David Suchet) who becomes intent on discovering the elusive truth. Bill firstly denies, then confirms, then develops the story and begins to use it to manipulate James. They have a fight with a cheese knife. The truth recedes further and further. Do we ever pin down the truth? Is anything ever resolved? Of course not, this is Pinter, ambiguity is all.

David Suchet’s camp, eye-rolling, lemon-lipped bitchery as his suspicion of, and frustration with the much younger Bill grows, is a big hit with the audience, even if it is slightly uncomfortable viewing in 2018. At 72, Suchet has a degree of vocal control, power and range that ought to be the envy of actors half his age. Russell Tovey imbues Bill with an unsympathetic slyness and whininess that may not be entirely justified by the writing but does help to make Harry’s reactions more sympathetic. The characters of Stella and James are hard to engage with: James is a victim, Stella is impenetrable. If you’re looking for character development, look elsewhere.

Pinter Two is an interesting, amusing, sometimes engaging event and, with a running time of just two hours, perfect if you need to catch the bus home. But if what you were after is some Ayckbourn-style light comedy with a touch of theatrical smartness and a dash of venom, you probably would have gone to see something with Ayckbourn’s name on the poster. Compared to the angry, mature Pinter of Pinter One (see previous review) there isn’t really a lot here.

Pinter Two tickets