Pinter Three and Pinter Four ★★★★

Jamie Lloyd’s commitment to completism continues to pay off

Season supremo Jamie Lloyd has an extraordinarily clear vision of how to weave Harold Pinter’s playlets together. Plus his cast of starry names work with total commitment and teamwork as an ensemble.

Pinter Three is a combination of short sharp sketches framed by two longer pieces, making for a satisfying evening that further illuminates Pinter’s work. Here, in particular, on relationships and how each man – and woman – can indeed be an island, separated by a sea of misunderstanding.

On Soutra Gilmour’s revolving set of varied rooms, illuminated by Jon Clark’s moody lighting, the cast move between sketches and characters to the almost sinister atmospheric soundscape composed by Ben and Max Ringham.

Tamsin Greig’s brace of stunning, brave and detailed performances in the longest and most substantial of these ‘shorts’ bookends Pinter Three. The audience enters to find Greig’s Beth marooned motionless on a chair. In Landscape she speaks into a microphone that gives an enigmatic quality to her soft Irish lilt, recalling a romantic idyll on a beach when she asked her man if he wanted a baby. By contrast, Keith Allen’s rather more prosaic Duff, who might or might not be that same partner, lives in the present, where avoiding dog shit is a preoccupation. You wonder if they can actually hear each other. It’s Pinter’s little joke perhaps to call them Beth and Duff, dropping the Mac.

Lee Evans is a revelation. Rising to the discipline of a script and a director, he is perfectly cast in Monologue, as a man in frank, bleak conversation with a chair, which he seems to be casting as a friend he’s fallen out with: “I’ll be frank, act as if you’re dead, as if the Balls Pond Road and the lovely ebony lady never existed.”

Evans proves he can share a stage to great comic effect in the daft sketch Trouble in the Works, in which he and Tom Edden revel in bouncing off each other like a pair of latterday I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue Panellists. “I hate to say it, but they’ve gone very vicious about the high-speed taper shank spiral flute reamers,” says Tom Edden’s Wills. “The high-speed taper shank spiral flute reamers!” exclaims Lee Evans’ Fibbs, aghast. “But that’s absolutely ridiculous! What could they possibly have against the high-speed taper shank spiral flute reamers?”

The pair are just as comically droll at the bar (pub not courtroom) in That’s Your Trouble, a right couple of dorks in Fair Isle singlets. Edden and Evans could be the start of a double act to succeed Morecambe and Wise (you heard it here first).

Meera Syal brings a special warmth to the stage, particularly partnered by Tom Edden in Night. There’s a gentle sensual beauty in the conversation of this married couple with their different recollections of the early days of their relationship, the giddy thrill of “I touched your breasts” contrasting with the reality of “I thought I heard a child upstairs, crying”.

A Kind of Alaska was inspired by Oliver Sachs’s description, in his book Awakenings, of the sudden reawakening of patients who had suffered from decades of sleeping sickness once they were prescribed the drug L-Dopa.

Marooned again, this time in a king-sized bed with white bedlinen, Deborah is a child trapped in the middle-aged woman’s body that has developed in the years through which she has slept since she was a teenager. Greig is shocking and moving as the ‘ghost’ teenager from a previous age, struggling to make sense of the wrong body and the loss of life and experience. There is something of the dementia patient about her here, except that she has not forgotten her life experience but been deprived of it. As Deborah’s sad, caring sister, who has been married and widowed while she slept, Meera Syal brings that quiet warmth to the role, a perfect foil and balance to Keith Allen’s patronising doctor, the type one suspects enjoys his power and omniscience.

Brid Brennan and Robert Glenister in Pinter Four.  Photo credit Marc Brenner. DRESS-2534.jpg

Pinter Four consists of just two much longer one-act plays, Moonlight from 1993 and Night School from 1979. In the latter the playwright seems to almost parody his own work. If you sought a definition of the adjective Pinteresque, you would surely find it in the non sequiturs, complete with pauses, exchanged by a pair of brothers played with immaculate timing by Al Weaver and Dwane Walcott. “It’s very important to keep your pecker up,” one exclaims. “How far up?”
“Well… how high is a Chinaman?”
“Quite.”
“Exactly.”

They are apparently absent from their father’s death bed, though in an at once clever and potentially confusing concept, director Lyndsey Turner melds their shabby bedroom with their parents’ elegant one, so that they appear to roll on the dying man’s bed even as he asks his wife where they are. As the dying Andy, Robert Glenister hits just the right bitter note as he veers between anger and resignation, crudely recalling his sexual conquests so that it’s hard for his long-suffering wife Bel to sympathise. Brid Brennan provides a fine study of a purse-lipped spouse, prepared to give as good as she gets – death bed notwithstanding.

Abbie Finn in Pinter Four.  Photo credit Marc Brenner. Pinterr Four DRESS-505.jpg

The earlier Night School, directed with flair and flamboyance by Ed Stamboulian, is a satisfying, well-made little tale with a fine sense of time (1970s) and place (London's East End), plus a beguiling cast of comic characters. Walter (Al Weaver again) is fresh out of prison and anxious to rest up in his room at the house owned by his two expansive aunties (a hilarious, judiciously over-the-top Cockney double act from Jamie Dee and Brid Brennan). The only thing is, they’ve let it out to “a lovely girl”, a teacher who goes to night school three times a week. He is affronted, but attracted to the apparently demure Sally, though he soon suspects that her evenings are not spent bettering herself learning languages, but earning a bit of extra cash as a club hostess. Jessica Barden subtly delineates between prim and less than proper and in a nice touch does not change out of her calf-length teacher’s skirt, leaving us to imagine a more revealing hostess outfit. The action is orchestrated by drummer Abbie Finn, who sits at her drum kit onstage throughout.

If you can’t get to both Pinters, don’t miss Pinter Three, but completists will revel in all that is memorable and revealing in both Pinters Three and Four.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Marc Brenner

Pinter Three runs until Saturday 8 December. 7.30pm (Mon, Wed & Fri), 2.30pm (Sat only). £15-£65. Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1Y 4DN. 084 5871 7615. www.pinteratthepinter.com

Pinter Four runs until Saturday 8 December. 7.30pm (Tue, Fri & Sat), 2.30pm Thu only). £15-£65. Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1Y 4DN. 084 5871 7615. www.pinteratthepinter.com