Pinter Seven ★★★★

The Pinter at the Pinter season of shorts reaches a fitting climax

At first sight these paired two-handers from 1957/8 seem poles apart. The protagonists of A Slight Ache are upper middle-class stockbroker belt denizens Flora (Gemma Whelan) and Edward (John Heffernan), complete with precisely clipped 50s vowels. In The Dumb Waiter Gus (Martin Freeman) and Ben (Danny Dyer), the two thugs for hire awaiting orders in a dingy London basement, are erstwhile East Enders long before the advent of the soap in which Dyer stars. Yet the one-act plays have more in common than the dates they were first performed. They both epitomise the Pinteresque, if its definition includes an underlying and increasing sense of menace and paranoia and an increasingly evident and disturbing power struggle.

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Although it has been staged in high profile venues with stellar casts, A Slight Ache was first performed on radio, with Pinter’s first wife Vivien Merchant as Flora and Maurice Denham as Edward. So it’s fitting and fascinating that Jamie Lloyd stages it here as a radio play, on Soutra Gilmour’s radio studio set, which boasts rather more useful levels than the average BBC studio, but perhaps fewer staff, as the actors – both on handheld microphones – double as Foley artists (sound designer George Dennis plays his part too). They largely provide their own sound effects (for example footsteps on a gravel-filled tray) with increasing physicality, by turns comical and alarming.

While there are uneasy laughs to be had, starting with the couple’s brittle contradictory exchange on which climbing plants flourish in their country garden, things take a turn for the sinister as they re-rehearse in detail ways of killing of a wasp Edward traps in his breakfast marmalade jar. But it’s the unlikely figure of a tramp-like match seller, entirely out of place at their garden gate, who signifies real menace, the catalyst for the couples’ seesawing power games as they vie for his attention.

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Although this silent character was first played on stage by a young Richard Briers, Lloyd’s coup de theatre is to have him exist entirely in the audience’s imagination, as in a real radio play. Whelan and Heffernan are perfection, portraying first their own relationship and then their increasingly and disturbingly sensual relationship with the match seller. She is the solicitous, perfect, ministering female, he apparently the alpha male, often vicious, branding her a ‘lying slut’, then reminiscing about his privileged boyhood with implied sexuality directed at their silent interlocutor. Their language is ever more bizarre, disturbingly sensual, with undertones of offering to please their visitor, perhaps sexually. The climax is suitably and satisfyingly shocking.

The Dumb Waiter is a masterclass in dangerously shifting power games and building menace both mental and physical, the granddaddy of uneasy partnerships on stage and screen between an ill-matched pair of heavies. Tarantino must surely have taken note.

Holed up in a dingy claustrophobic basement, apparently beneath a restaurant given the ‘dumb waiter’ food lift of the title in the back wall, Freeman and Dyer give perfect accounts of their characters and, like Whelan and Heffernan, perfectly calibrate their exchanges and shifting relationships. It’s a sort of unequal bromance. Dyer’s Ben is always on top, almost from the glorious opening scene-setting silence, where the pair establish their characters with the simplest of business. It’s his comparative stillness in contrast to Freeman’s nervous fidgeting that ensures he’s ahead of the game. Both though are in thrall to that not so dumb waiter, which creaks and grinds ominously (thanks to George Dennis’s sound design) as it returns to the basement with ever more bizarre orders to unsettle the pair. Again, the implied impending violence of the climax is entirely satisfying, supremely Pinteresque. Jamie Lloyd’s extraordinarily ambitious, visionary season has brought actors, creative teams and audience together to share the revelatory theatre of this unique, game changing playwright and to make new connections in his work.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Marc Brenner

Pinter Seven runs until Saturday 23 February. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Sat & Thu only). £15-£65. Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1Y 4DN. 084 5871 7615.

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