Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Posted: February 8, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Harold Pinter      Director: Jamie Lloyd


If Jamie Lloyd had written a memo-to-self before embarking on this, the seventh of his anthologies of Harold Pinter’s short plays, it could well have read “less is more”. The two plays are from the late 1950s and Lloyd strips back the first to near its original form (which was for radio); in the second, he allows precise typecasting to do much of his work and both decisions prove to be masterstrokes.

A Slight Ache (1958) reflects the changing nation of its time. Edward and Flora are a quarrelsome upper middle class couple who, on Midsummer day, have little else to do but sit around their country home and talk about the shrubs. Edward wakes with a slight ache in his eye and becomes troubled firstly by a wasp in the marmalade jar and then by a mysterious match seller who has taken to standing in a lane at the bottom of his garden. He commands Flora to invite the stranger inside, which she duly does, offering him a glass of sherry and naming him “Barnaby”.

Soutra Gilmour’s set is a radio studio and the actors speak directly into microphones throughout, barely reacting to each other in a visual sense. Lloyd puts the focus on the words and the voices, just as it would have been in the original production, and, crucially, as the match seller has no lines, there is no need for him to be in the studio. As a result, he becomes an invisible menace that hovers over the play for almost its duration.

John Heffernan’s Edward is a man who knows that he has become an irrelevance, like a member of the officer classes now redundant in post-Imperial Britain. Gemma Whelan gives the obedient and sexually repressed Flora an air of resentment, her Home Counties accent falling somewhere between the earnestness of Celia Johnson and the mockery of June Whitfield. She urges “Barnaby” to “come into my garden” squeezing every drop of innuendo out of Pinter’s loaded dialogue.

Hidden menace links this play with The Dumb Waiter (1957), which follows it. Gilmour’s set is now a spartan basement room, resembling a prison cell with a single bed against each wall. Its occupants, attired in business suits, are Ben and Gus, two hit men awaiting instructions for their next job. Instead, all they get is a dumb waiter descending repeatedly with orders for meals which they cannot possibly provide. The play highlights two prominent features of ‘50s drama – realism and, paradoxically, absurdism. Written a few years after Waiting for Godot, there are obvious echoes of Beckett, but, more significantly, the writing captures the essence of early Pinter and brings out themes that were to recur throughout the writer’s career.

Ben is the “senior partner”, gaining authority from his junior’s nervousness and using leadership as a mask for his own uncertainty. Danny Dyer has built a career out of playing loveable, if slightly roguish, Cockney geezers and his appearance as Ben makes the character instantly recognisable. Similarly, we think of Martin Freeman as playing life’s seconds-in-command, bemused ordinary blokes who question all the extraordinary happenings around them. Thus, he is exactly right for Gus. However, the fact that both actors are so firmly within their comfort zones should not detract from their command of the rhythm and tone of Pinter.

Two intriguing plays, four tremendous performances and impeccable staging. These little gems are as close to perfection as it is reasonable to hope for.

Performance date: 7 February 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

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