I suppose I should preface this by telling you that I’ve experienced more or less nothing about either Harold Pinter, or his plays. I once saw a ten-minute chunk of The Birthday party performed by A-level Drama students when I was 15, but that’s it. For better or for worse, I went into this with some theoretical knowledge, but no real sense of what Pinter’s work ‘should’ look like, or sound like, or feel like. With that in mind, I wouldn’t want to try to comment on whether or not Pinter 5 is an example of Pinter done well – although the prestige of Pinter at the Pinter would certainly suggest that it’s done extremely well. What I can say with absolute certainty is that the two hours passed very quickly, and, as with all good theatre, I had to walk round the block to gather my thoughts before going home.
The three short plays that make up Pinter 5 – The Room, Victoria Station and Family Voices, are very different from one another in tone.
The Room feels absolutely ominous and relies heavily on a constant sense of impending disaster. It’s dominated by Jane Horrocks, and rightly so. Her Mrs Hudd is so painfully on edge, never settling and never not worrying. She’s a character who experiences horror in her own mundane world, and we’re trapped in there along with her. It’s painfully stilted and repetitive, reflected in the cuboid stage, which Mrs Hudd seems unable to leave, forced instead to deal with the comings and goings of others, over which she has no control or input.
If anything, Victoria Station is even more disconcerting. It seems to set out to be funny, but doesn’t take long to start taking on a very worrying atmosphere. Rupert Graves is superb in this section: he gives his character, referred to only as 274, a sort of blankness that felt reminiscent of someone in shock. This is maybe the most surreal of all three – the apparent isolation of both characters, both from each other and the outside world, combined with the increasingly nonsensical dialogue, culminates in something that feels quite similar to a form of dystopian horror.
It would be hard to talk about Family Voices without talking about Luke Thallon, because he’s the wind beneath its wings. Performed as a series of monologues by a mother, father and son, but without any physical interaction (it was first written for radio, and the monologues represent letters sent between the characters), it documents the efforts of a young man to build a new life for himself in a new city, while his parents become more and more worried for his whereabouts. The son’s parts require significant range, performing the characters that he describes in his new life. Thallon’s capacity for storytelling would be hard to miss, as would the apparent ease with which he seems to juggle multiple personas.
Among all of this, Soutra Gilmour’s set is stunning. Static until the end of the second play, it then becomes a monolith of sorts, turning on the spot to change to a new configuration, whilst exposing its enormous scale.
In case it’s not obvious, I really loved this. It’s nuanced, careful, and tacitly manages to develop a sense of inescapable isolation over the course of the three plays, without ever explicitly mentioning it.
Pinter 5 is playing the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 January 2019. For more information and tickets, visit the Harold Pinter Theatre website.