Literally a stone’s throw from his front door, the Gate in Notting Hill is Harold Pinter’s local. How fitting, then, that the pub theatre should raise a flag in honour of the playwright’s Nobel Prize, awarded last October as he reached the age of 75.
The citation declared that Pinter “restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue where people are at the mercy of each other.” This certainly applies to the double-bill of A Kind of Alaska (1982) and A Slight Ache (1958). The first is a dream-like awakening of a middle-aged woman, Deborah, after 29 years in a coma. She is attended by her doctor and her younger sister. In the second, a silent tramp displaces an elderly distracted writer in his own country house, encouraged by the writer’s wife.
As so often in Pinter, an emotional triangle is fraught with ambiguity and pain. When Niall Buggy’s enraptured doctor reveals that he married Deborah’s sister but that she has been a widow for 20 years, devotion suddenly deepens with poignancy. Anna Calder-Marshall as the night-gowned Deborah, eyes blazing and voice tripping over childish memories, follows Judi Dench and Penelope Wilton in claiming ownership of a wonderful role.
Pinter acknowledges a debt to the neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose book Awakenings itemised the cases of patients rescued from prolonged periods of sleeping sickness by the drug L-Dopa. The drama puts mystery into the medicine.
Diana Hardcastle plays the taut, anxious sister and returns in A Slight Ache, first written for radio, as the sensual Flora, surrounded by her japonica, honeysuckle and convolvulus.
Just about the third piece Pinter wrote, the strongest section is the hilarious trapping of a wasp in the marmalade pot. The silent tramp, with his moth-eaten balaclava and tray of matches, does not work well as a stage character. Michael Byrne tries valiantly to keep Edward’s Beckettian ramblings interesting, but energy seeps away and even the classic lines – “You look less and less like a cricketer the more I see of you” – don’t carry the forceful ping of the playwright’s best vintage.
But the production - co-directed by Claire Lovett and the Gate’s artistic director Thea Sharrock (who has just had a baby) - fully evokes those enclosed spaces of a hospital ward and high summer garden: a fascinating rarity for devotees.
- Michael Coveney