A confession: I am not sure whether I actually like Pinter. The last production I saw – Ian Rickson’s star-studded staging of The Birthday Party earlier this year – left me cold, though it must be said my reaction may have been coloured by my terrible seat right up at the back of a steeply raked balcony. I had horrible vertigo the whole time, and couldn’t even see the actors’ faces clearly enough to make out their facial expressions. Half a year later I’ve returned to the same theatre, where Artistic Director Jamie Lloyd is staging a six-month celebration of the venerated playwright. This coincides with the 10 year anniversary of his death, kicking off with two concurrent productions: Pinter One and Pinter Two. I am here for the latter, the inspired pairing of The Lover and The Collection.
First up is The Lover, penned in 1962, with its debut performance as a television play in 1963. Soutra Gilmour’s set is a delightfully mid-century modern, salmon pink homage to the décor of its era. The Lover exemplifies Pinter’s mastery of irony in this vignette of couple’s suburban mundanity spiced up by infidelity. The play’s subject matter is surprisingly relevant to a 21st century audience in that conversations around variations of non-monogamy are coming increasingly to the fore. Hayley Squires and John MacMillan treat us to impeccably smart performances, at once exaggerated and clipped. Macmillan especially is brilliantly funny with his over-pronounced delivery, whilst Squires’ flouncing housewife is a joy to watch. Russell Tovey’s cameo gives us a taste of what is to follow after the interval.
The decision to follow The Lover with The Collection feels natural, in that the two halves of the production play against each other well; simultaneously highlighting the contrasts and similarities between them. Linked by thematic threads of seduction and ambiguity, the lightness of the former throws the dark sordidness of the latter into relief. This inversion of tone is borne out by the set, lighting and music. The bright, chic living room is now draped with heavy curtains and low lighting, upbeat 60s lounge music replaced by sultry film noir tones.
One peril of staging two pieces side by side in this manner is that one will outshine the other – particularly when the first of the two is so strong – but The Collection is equally taut. Squires and MacMillan return to give equally slick performances, joined now by Russell Tovey and David Suchet. Tovey gives a tight-trousered, swaggering performance, which amps up the homoerotic elements of the script, and is just on the cusp of being overly hammy. Suchet’s turn as an irascible old queen is perfectly judged to great comic effect. The Collection strikes a pleasing balance with The Lover, with its carefully polished malice edged with deliberately unsettling humour.
Overall, both plays are impeccably well cast, sharply directed and deftly performed. Lloyd has got the Pinter season off to a rip-roaring start and sets the bar high for the pieces that follow. If they live up to this one, I would not be surprised if Lloyd’s tribute to the great man goes down in history. On the evidence of this production, I do indeed like the writer, though I can’t help but wonder as I sit in a seat that would ordinarily be prohibitively expensive, whether I would have liked it as much from a less dear vantage point.
Pinter Two is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 20th October. Pinter at the Pinter continues until 23rd February. For more information and tickets, see here.