Pinter at the Pinter: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter

And so the Pinter at the Pinter season at the Harold Pinter Theatre draws to a close with one of Harold Pinter’s most famous short plays – The Dumb Waiter – performed alongside another short, A Slight Ache.

A Slight Ache, dating from 1958, was originally a radio play, and director Jamie Lloyd has retained the conceit by having the actors – Gemma Whelan and John Heffernan – perform as if they are in a recording studio, speaking into microphones and making use of Foley equipment to add sound effects. It is the story of a married couple whose lives are slowly drawn into disarray by a mysterious match seller at the bottom of the garden. His presence reveals hidden depths and desires in our two protagonists, Edward drawn out into telling long tales and Flora revealing long-suppressed desires. Whelan and Heffernan’s performances are superb, and the tension is palpable.

The Dumb Waiter, dating from 1957, is also full of tension but in addition is very funny. Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer are superb as the two hitmen waiting in a Birmingham basement to carry out their next job. Dyer is Ben, clearly the leader of the pair, and Freeman is Gus, his more insecure subordinate. When the nearby dumb waiter starts sending down random restaurant orders, the pair respond with confusion, bewilderment and fear, sending teabags, a packet of biscuits and an Eccles cake up in lieu of what has actually been ordered. It’s a glorious mix of the realistic and the absurd, switching between the two modes in a way that’s as impressive as the mix of drama and humour.

I’m sorry to see the end of this season, which has been exciting and hugely enjoyable. I can’t get too sad though, as there’s Pinter’s Betrayal starring Tom Hiddleston to look forward to next…


Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare’s strangest plays, shorter than most, stripped back and almost as dark as King Lear in its bleak view of humanity. It has also been argued that Thomas Middleton contributed to the play, particularly in the sharply comedic scenes towards the middle of the play.

Timon is a wealthy Athenian noble who spends lavishly, treating her friends to gourmet meals, lending money, and providing a dowry for one servant who wishes to marry. However, her spendthrift attitude has placed her desperately in debt, and her so-called ‘friends’ refuse to help. Hurt and angered, she retreats to the woods, swearing revenge.

Timon, originally a male character, becomes female in this version; it doesn’t add anything to the play per se but it doesn’t take anything away either, and it’s a chance for Kathryn Hunter to take the title role. Her performance is compelling and intriguing: at the beginning of the play, surrounded by wealth and admired by all, she comes across as insecure and vulnerable; by the end, when she has lost everything, she seems to have acquired a new confidence and dignity. You think that her philanthropy was perhaps the result of a desire to be loved, and also, maybe, an expectation of receiving the same treatment from her “friends”, hence her anger when this treatment is not fulfilled.

There are good performances, too, from Patrick Drury as Flavius, Timon’s loyal steward, and Debbie Korley as Alcibiades, the revolutionary who leads a demand for an end to usury and greed in Athens. Soutra Gilmour’s design is fitting, with flashy gold decor to reflect Timon’s wealth and a suitably decrepit dump to act as her later home. I was intrigued by the choice of yellow jackets for the revolutionaries, evoking, intentionally or not, the recent protests in France, although the programme suggests that director Simon Godwin took inspiration from the financial crisis in Greece.

I confess I didn’t find the play as engaging as some of Shakespeare’s other work, although there were some amusing moments, including Timon’s revenge dinner served to her guests after they have refused to lend her money. The scenes in which her servants try and get loans from said friends are also sharply observed, full of the sort of poor excuses which are familiar to most. While it won’t be a favourite of mine, it’s an interesting piece.

True West

I made a last-minute decision to go and see this play, prompted more by indifferent curiosity rather than genuine enthusiasm. I’ve seen Kit Harington on stage before, so in itself his presence didn’t draw me; I’ve liked, but not loved, Sam Shephard’s plays in the past. Sometimes, though, the shows you approach with a lack of passion turn out to be the best, and certainly I found True West more enjoyable than I’d expected.

Austin (Kit Harington, sporting a deeply unattractive moustache) is a screenwriter, who has sought peace and quiet in his mother’s house in the heart of California. Unexpectedly, and to his dismay, his brother Lee (Johnny Flynn) turns up. Unlike Austin, Lee has embraced, like their father, a life of petty crime, and is soon borrowing a reluctant Austin’s car to go and commit burglary.

What is worse for Austin, though, is that when producer Saul Kimmer arrives to discuss their latest project, he encounters Lee, who somehow manages to convince him that his ludicrous idea for a Western would make a good movie – would reflect the “true” west. While Lee sits down at the typewriter to try and pen his first screenplay, Austin, deeply perturbed by this role reversal, takes to drink and petty crime: stealing his neighbours’ toasters, which he proceeds to set up in a row and put to use. There’s a very funny scene in which he carefully butters a stack of toast which had me giggling over my own breakfast a couple of mornings later.

The two principals are both superb: Harington is unrecognisable from his famous role in Game of Thrones, convincing as the more intelligent but far less streetwise brother. Johnny Flynn as his delinquent sibling is fast-talking and funny, but there is a distinct hint of menace. There are good supporting turns too from Donald Sage Mackay as the film producer who likes Lee’s idea and Madeleine Potter as the pair’s mother, who seems surprisingly unconcerned at their hostile behaviour.

Beneath the humour and the surface plot there bubbles the question, what is “true west”? As the wall rises for the last act, it reveals a desert which seems intentionally artificial. The final irony is that Lee’s film plot, which is extremely far-fetched, appears to become real as the brothers head out into the “desert”, locked in a battle with one another.

A funny, clever play that doesn’t outstay its welcome, it was a success for me.

Aspects of Love

Aspects of Love is an Andrew Lloyd Webber show I’ve never been able to catch, so I was pleased to be able to see it at the Southwark Playhouse. The original production premiered in 1989 and made a star out of a young Michael Ball; this one, directed by Jonathan O’Boyle, comes to London from the Hope Mill Theatre, which has developed a reputation for excellent musical revivals.

The plot is somewhat convoluted, but at least, I suppose, it lives up to the title: “aspects of love” are demonstrated in all their variety. A young man, Alex, meets an older actress, Rose, and the two embark on a passionate affair. While enjoying a romantic tryst at the house belonging to Alex’s Uncle George, George himself turns up, which throws a spanner in the works. Add in George’s lover, Giulietta, Rose’s lovelorn producer, and – after a lapse of seventeen years – Rose’s teenage daughter, Jenny, and the scene is set for not a love triangle, but a love hexagon.

I love Lloyd Webber’s music, but except for the famous songs ‘Love Changes Everything’ and ‘Seeing Is Believing’, Aspects of Love (lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart) is disappointingly short on catchy songs. It’s pretty enough, and serves the story well, but it’s not about to make me to go and listen to the soundtrack. It’s a shame, because the performers, particularly Kelly Price as Rose and Madalena Alberto as Giulietta, are superb with gorgeous, rich voices. Felix Mosse in particular is very good as a wide-eyed young man embarking on his first love affair, while Price is believable and sympathetic as a woman in love with two men. There are strong turns from the supporting cast, including a good comedic turn as a servant reminiscent of Mrs Doyle from Father Ted.

Based on the novel by David Garnett, Aspects of Love is a complex tale, although some aspects of the second half made me feel rather uncomfortable (in fairness, the part that concerned me didn’t turn out nearly as badly as I thought it would). It might not live up to the likes of Phantom, but I’m glad I’ve seen it.

She Ventures and He Wins

She Ventures and He Wins is a 1696 play by a woman known as Ariadne, performed here by South London Theatre. It tells two stories in parallel: one concerning Charlotte, a spirited young woman who dresses as a man to try and track down a husband with all the requisite qualities, and Urina, a woman who enlists her husband to help her play tricks on a would-be seducer.

The play is very entertaining and the acting is good; Charlotte’s story is different to anything I’ve seem before, though Urina’s is clearly taken from The Merry Wives of Windsor. Overall, it was a hugely enjoyable evening and I’m glad I made the effort to see this rarely-performed play.

Notre Dame de Paris

Not content with one smash-hit musical based on his work, French writer Victor Hugo has managed to achieve two: as well as the famous Les Miserables, which has been playing in the West End for over thirty years, there is a French-language production of Notre Dame de Paris, with music by Richard Cocciante and lyrics by Luc Plamondon, which has enjoyed huge popularity in France and all over the world. It has come to the UK in the form of a five-night residency at the London Coliseum.

The story, perhaps best known to the English-speaking world via the Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame, concerns a rich cast of characters living in and around the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame. As refugees seek sanctuary within the precincts of the cathedral, gypsy girl Esmeralda falls in love Phoebus, the Captain of the Royal Archers, but also attracts the attention of the priest, Frollo, and Quasimodo, the ugly but kind-hearted hunchback who has the job of bell ringer.

The huge cast of characters is extremely talented, with special mention going to Angelo Del Vecchio as Quasimodo, Hiba Tawaji as Esmeralda and Richard Charest as the poet Gringoire, who also acts as a kind of narrator. The production makes the most of the vast Coliseum stage, with impressive choreography featuring many original touches: the bell-ringing sequence is particularly good, while elsewhere there are some clever moves involving ordinary objects like metal railings and wooden pallets. Music-wise, it’s what Les Mis might have sounded like if it had been written by Eurovision songwriters. There are several strong numbers, and my only real criticism is that the show seemed to move from one number to another without stopping to pause for breath; it lacked the sensitivity and warmth of something like Les Miserables.

Written in 1998, the show retains relevance twenty years later, which is evident in the references to refugees and “citizens of nowhere.” Hugo’s work was always about the outsiders, those unfortunates of society, and this production emphasises that focus.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

This new British musical, with music by Dan Gillespie Sells and book and lyrics by Tom MacRae, premiered in Sheffield before transferring to London, and I finally got around to seeing it. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is showing at the Apollo Theatre and its popularity shows no signs of abating.

Sixteen-year-old Jamie has a dream: to become a drag queen. Supported by his mother and her best friend, as well as many of his schoolmates, he is determined to make an impact by wearing a dress to the school prom. But he has to contend with prejudice from teachers, the school bully, and even his own father.

This warm, lively musical is a joy through and through. John McCrea as Jamie is charismatic and hugely likeable, supported by the talented Lucie Shorthouse as his best friend Pritti and Josie Walker as his loving mother Margaret. I also loved Shobna Gulati as his mum’s best friend Ray, while Michelle Visage as teacher Miss Hedge and Lee Ross as Hugo, the former drag queen who mentors Jamie, are also great. Playwright Tom MacRae captures the banter of teenagers well, and Kate Prince’s choreography is dynamic and amusing to watch.

There are some brilliantly catchy songs in this show, including ‘And You Don’t Even Know It’ and the title song, although the pace drops somewhat in the second half with a few too many identikit ballads. It picks up towards the end, though, leaving an overall impression of warmth and goodwill. The message of the show – that you should be able to be yourself without judgement or criticism – isn’t new but is no less important for that. Remembering that Jamie is based on a real life story is a reminder that things have moved on, certainly since my day, and will hopefully continue to do so.