Pinter Five ★★★★★ and Pinter Six ★★★★

More transcendent Pinter in this supremely ambitious season

This unique sequence of short plays has illuminated the work of this most iconoclastic of playwrights and I’m sure I’m not the only one whose spine tingles with anticipation as each new programme is unveiled. It’s not just the top-notch casts and fellow directors Jamie Lloyd attracts, but his own clear vision of how the plays work onstage – as separate entities and in tandem – that make for such a season. This is of course coupled with his continuing collaboration with designer Soutra Gilmour and sound designers Ben and Max Ringham (working this time with lighting designer Richard Howell).

Pinter 5 is directed by Patrick Marber, whose Year 2000 production of The Caretaker boasted the input and approbation of Pinter himself. It is for me one of the most satisfying programmes to date, for its coupling of Harold Pinter’s very first play, The Room (1957) with Family Voices, a play originally written for radio almost 25 years later, leavened with a wickedly funny sketch from 1982, Victoria Station. In each of these works, insecurity and territory are key, and in the first two weightier works Pinter explores relationships both interdependent and abusive.

Pinter Five 2 © Marc Brenner.jpg

What thrills about The Room is the way Pinter sets out his stall in his very first play for what will become the hallmarks of the term ‘Pinteresque’. In a dingy London bedsit that exudes the 1950s, thanks to Gilmour’s faithful period detail (clock the gas fire that actually whoomphs as it’s lit), the atmosphere is uneasy as a couple start their day. Bert Hudd, cap on head, huddles silent and scowling over his full English and newspaper, while wife Rose regales him not just with a rasher of bacon but with a monologue in which she is desperate to please – and desperately insecure about a perceived threat to the couples’ tenure of the eponymous room. It’s just as well the weather, about which she seems to obsess, is so cold as, without a fridge, she resorts to keeping the milk for Bert’s "lovely weak tea" on the windowsill. Jane Horrocks’ Rose is totally compelling in her palpable terror, while it’s extraordinary how much eloquence Rupert Graves injects into Bert’s hunched, sullen dumbness.

The trademark repetitions are present and correct too, building the tension, especially on the appearance at the door of nervy Mr Kidd (Nicholas Woodeson, a particularly surefooted negotiator of the Pinteresque), who may or may not be the landlord, to herald the arrival of a smart young couple who appear interested in the coveted room; and later, Riley, a secret visitor seeking Rose alone. Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi are pitch perfect as Mr and Mrs Sands, their assured body language signalling they feel entirely at home in the room, making Rose even more voluble in her terror. The final scene in this compact gem ratchets up the tension as Colin McFarlane’s almost Christ-like blind Riley is caught reaching out to Rose by a now violent Bert.

A bedsit stars in Family Voices too, where the tenant, a young man (perfectly febrile Thallon), a recent arrival in the capital, lolls on his bed in dishabille, apparently reassuring his mother (perhaps by letter) that he is settling in. But as he regales her with tales of the fine new friends he is making, it seems he may be describing drug-induced fantasies, while she is increasingly desperate to hear from him and angered by his silence. She implies his father is dead, yet he too appears in this hallucinatory piece. Horrocks and Graves are again superb as this disturbed upper-crust couple.

Victoria Station displays a different sort of territory – the interior of a cab and the minicab control room from which a controller contends with a driver too gormless to even know where Victoria Station is, exchange ever more disconnected messages. I guess now the driver’s satnav would have curtailed the confusion, but this is a splendid piece of period fun, complete with underlying insecurity and ill-temper, played to the comic hilt by McFarlane’s exasperated Controller and Graves’ infuriatingly opaque Driver.

Pinter Six 1 © Marc Brenner.jpg

Pinter Six comprises two longer pieces, Party Time from 1991 and Celebration from 2000, both featuring the same starry cast of nine. Both look stunning, thanks again to Gilmour, and it’s hard to imagine either better directed than here by Lloyd himself. In Party Time the nine – clad in stark, striking black, topped off with dark wigs – appear to be at an excruciating posh do, perhaps a wake judging by the funereal music and dress code. Despite their stilted small talk about an exclusive health club with coveted membership, it emerges that they might be the elite of a totalitarian regime, one where virulent sexism is rampant. The women are defiant and the men execrable in their language. The action is punctuated by lighting changes, during which what look like the doors of a crematorium open and close noisily and the ‘guests’ alter their line-up and where they are seated on the uncomfortable formal little chairs.

The tense climax has all eyes on an interloper from a different stratum of society for whose safety you fear. It is played to the hilt by über males John Simm (terrifyingly objectionable), Phil Davis, Gary Kemp and Ron Cook, plus their feisty and unbowed womenfolk, Eleanor Matsura, Katherine Kingsley and Tracy-Ann Oberman, as well as Celia Imrie’s silky, assured ‘clan elder’ Melissa. Abraham Popoola makes the most of his 11th-hour dramatic entry as outsider Jimmy. It is alienating, chilling stuff, a piece perhaps with Mountain Language and other playlets delving into repressive, violent regimes, but here with implied rather than overt violence.

Celebration is by contrast a gaudy raucous affair. At a table whose décor is all gold lamé tablecloths, and dominated by a blinding golden chandelier, sits a party celebrating the wedding anniversary of Cook’s Lambert, evidently an East End gangland boss. He comes complete with a brother in the Krays’ mode, Davis’ Matt and their brassy wives, who are wonderfully, almost hilariously, clad in 50 shades of gold and channelling The Only Way is Essex. They separate an imperfectly matched couple sitting either end of the table, Suki and Russell (perfectly matched Kingsley and Simm) who are, lighting changes indicate, apparently sitting at a separate table. It seems that she may have history with at least one of the men at the other table – behind the filing cabinet at the office party.

Again, the sexism is rampant, as transgressive as it is hilarious – all the more disturbing though, as the women themselves seem to buy into it. You laugh despite yourself, though assertions like “all mothers in law … don’t want their sons to be f-ed by other girls” from Oberman’s excellent, exuberantly foul-mouthed Julie (the bride) leave a bad taste in the mouth. Imrie turns in a second performance of silky authority. Kemp and Matsura as the maître and maîtresse d'hôtel who wait on them exude discreet deference, conveying subtle contempt with a raised eyebrow as their regulars try to recall whether they have just come on to "the most expensive f-ing restaurant in town" from the ballet or the opera. Popoola is hilarious and eventually disturbing as a name-dropping waiter, who asserts his grandfather was a sort of Zelig, who knew every literary figure from TS Eliot to James Joyce and then some. It all adds up to laughter both brittle and raucous and Pinter succeeds brilliantly in making the restaurant’s clientele extraordinarily unlovable. For my money though, Pinter Five is the more rewarding bill.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Marc Brenner

Pinter Five and Pinter Six run until Saturday 26 January. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Thu & Sat only). £15-£65. Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1Y 4DN. 084 5871 7615. www.pinteratthepinter.com

Read our reviews of Pinter One & Two and Pinter Three & Four.