Pinter is a playwright of vitality and fireworks or unremitting, crashing boredom – quite like Shakespeare, in fact, although in both instances of course the writing is only a small part of the necessary alchemy that weaves its way into a production. Entering the Harold Pinter Theatre for Pinter Four, we are accosted with a gigantic, grave-like monolith dominating the entirety of the stage, the word PINTER chiselled into it in gigantic, humourless letters. It feels a touch like we are about to be indoctrinated into a particularly bleak and severe cult. It is very serious. It is inauspicious. It is an entirely accurate omen for the first half of Pinter Four.
The short play Moonlight lumbers along in a general fog ofincomprehension for an hour or so, with a strange vagueness surrounding the characters and their relationships. The premise is that a father is dying in his bedroom, waiting for his children and grandchildren to arrive and yet they never do.The set is appropriately chintzy and suffocating, dominated by the deathbed of the incumbent father played superbly by Robert Glenister who keeps this convoluted first half afloat, working with humour, petulance and an easy, natural presence. He develops a good relationship with Bríd Brennan, playing his wife Bel, who acts as a foil to his witticisms rather than contributing too much herself. She is forced to inhabitthat unfortunate hinterland of the underwritten Pinter woman, existing in gaps and silences and so barely existing at all, leaving very little for Brennan to work with. Janie Dee brings some life to the proceedings as Maria, and Al Weaver works hard as one half of the brotherly duo of Jake and Fred.
These brothers are one of the more confusing aspects of the piece, dipping in and out of scenes in seemingly completely different characters: one starts to gather towards the end that it’s some sort of bizarre game or masquerade played by the two, but either way it’s completely baffling. Without any apparent reason or cue, the pair drop into some hideous hybrid of Shakespeare, Noel Coward, and a 1940s army roll call. Weaver manages to maintain some grasp on these ineffableproceedings which is more than can be said for DwaneWalcott, who flounders in the difficult text and comes across as rather mechanical in the process. Isis Hainsworth opens and closes the show in two mystical monologues that seemtemporally uprooted from any kind of context, the effect of which is truly infuriating. To quote Nikki from Big Brother – Who is she? Who IS she? The squeaking fury of this quote(do look it up on YouTube if you’re unfamiliar) is directed at the character rather than Hainsworth, who captivates the audience’s attention in the first instance and who somehow salvages something vaguely interesting at the close. It is unclear whether she is a daughter, a grandchild, both or neither, and we head into the interval frustrated and rather at a loss. This is Pinter at his most infuriating and obscure.
Thank God, then, for Night School, directed with bombastic enthusiasm by Ed Stambollouian. It is quite simply brilliant.
The stuffy set of Moonlight is stripped back to the bare frame of the cube – all stage crew deserve medals for the vast number of changes undertaken in one day – which sits stark and naked in the middle of the stage, the backwall and sidewings exposed. It is sparse and skeletal, with a drum kit sat centre back. This is bashed to cheerful oblivion by the incredibly talented Abbie Finn, whose percussive score for this piece recalls the incendiary cinematic experiences ofWhiplash and Birdman. It is a surprising yet excellent combination, the rattle of the dialogue accompanied by the snap of the drums, both adding to and supporting the other in a sharply drawn, deliciously tense balance.
Al Weaver is sublime as the hapless Walter, out of prison again only to find his room let to a schoolmistress by his Aunties Milly and Annie, played by Janie Dee and Bríd Brennan respectively in gloriously comic style. They are a fabulous duo, griping with each other and offering a seemingly endless stream of cakes to various male visitors, including Robert Glenister resurrected as a greasy gangster with seemingly flawless logic when it comes to submitting income tax forms. Peter Polycarpou, touching and funny as Ralph in Moonlight becomes Tully, a sycophantic and seedynightclub manager after a gloriously simple yet effective scene change in which glittering ribbons are dropped from the ceiling. Jessica Barden as Sally is disappointing, however: after her unbelievably fantastic leading role in The End of the F***ing World, she appears stilted and uneasy on stage, her voice consistently on one note and her physicality – after a brief burst of introductory dancing – lacking any weight or presence. It’s a real shame, as Sally the schoolteacher attending “night school” to learn languages is one of the more interesting of Pinter’s women and Barden is undoubtably a very talented actress – quite where her customary, characterful chutzpah has gone for this production is uncertain. Nevertheless, this inventive, engaging and very funny production of Night School deserves to be seen, with Pinter Four showcasing both the delightful and the deadly sides of one of our most famous and beloved playwrights.
Images: Marc Brenner