All of the short sketches and monologues by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter are presented by comedians Bill Bailey (Black Books), Kevin Eldon (Nighty Night), Sally Phillips (Green Wing) and Geraldine McNulty (My Hero) in Pinter's People, which opened at the Theatre Royal Haymarket last night (1 February 2007, following previews from 30 January), for a run to 25 February 2007 (See News, 9 Jan 2007).
The sketches, which are directed by The Right Size’s Sean Foley, include a never before seen piece, as well as more familiar favourites Night (1969) and The New World Order (1991). And the production, according to Foley, received the blessing of the prolific playwright himself, who attended last night’s opening night (See First Night Photos, 2 Feb 2007).
However, Pinter's People certainly didn’t receive the blessing of the overnight critics, who said over-the-top acting – including “mugging and clowning” – and “incompetent” direction ruined the subtleties of Pinter’s writing, while many thought the sketches should have been presented in chronological order as opposed to what seemed a haphazard arrangement. They did, however, say some of the scenes showed promise and a sense of what the show could achieve if it was to “calm down” more.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (2 stars) – “(The production) sounded like a recipe for a very decent two hours, even if the Haymarket is more suited to the upper reaches of society comedy…. The reality is a strangely uneasy evening in which the over-emphatic, coarse-grained style of television comedy acting is exposed as entirely unsuited to the musical rhythms, delicious incongruities and melancholic beat of Pinter’s writing. Pinter’s people, in fact, have been unceremoniously mugged and served up as extras in The Fast Show or Little Britain, and I don’t mean that as a compliment…. Everything needs calming down. These pieces are dramatic snippets, with real characters and detailed composition. When the material starts verging towards the state of a short play, things improve slightly… One sits gloomily through the evening with the sort of dutiful despair one never experiences at the best of Pinter plays with proper casts.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (1 star) - “There are some theatrical evenings over which it would be best to draw not only veils but also gags. I fear Pinter's People is one of those embarrassing occasions. Bill Bailey, Kevin Eldon, Geraldine McNulty and Sally Phillips are the four performers, whose styles of performance frequently descend to burlesque and the vulgar grotesque. All too often, thanks to the licence for coarse acting supplied by director Sean Foley, they distort and diminish this anthology of sketches…. (The sketches) need light, shade and subtlety to make their comic or horrifying point and would have been more interestingly played in chronological order…. It is admittedly interesting to hear hints and omens of fully developed Pinter as in Night (1969), where a husband and wife fall back on completely conflicting memories of their early romancing life. Even so I could not help thinking that none of these sketches show Pinter to good advantage.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (2 stars) – “Comedy, I sometimes think, is too serious a matter to be left to comedians. For this woeful evening... proves that the dramatist is not best served by mugging, limb-twitching or behaving like a berserk tick-tack man…. Even the arrangement of the material, under Sean Foley's lame direction, misses a vital trick. It would be fascinating to see the sketches, covering the years from 1959 to 2006, chronologically performed…. here the sketches are presented in an incoherent jumble that disguises their relation to Pinter's plays and tells us nothing about how he extended the form…. A few items rise above the general flailing incompetence. The beautifully subtle Night… And Victoria Station, which shows a radio-cab controller trying to communicate with a hapless driver, achieves the right move from comedy to menace…. But then we are back where we started…. Here, Pinter's people have been turned into lurching grotesques and the result does a grave disservice both to the writer and comic acting.”
Benedict Nightingale in the Times (2 stars) – “Last night I was sickened by some of the coarsest performances I have ever seen in a London playhouse. True, the Haymarket isn’t the most intimate of theatres — but does that mean Sean Foley should let members of his cast go so abjectly into steamhammer and/or megaphone mode?... You can just about see Pinter’s trademark preoccupations beneath language that’s superficially as scattered and random as any you might overhear in a caff or on a bus: paranoia, the urge to dominate, loneliness, the need to fill silences with a sort of meaningful meaninglessness. But only in the second half does the cast calm down and let the audience listen, observe, ponder. With Bailey a justifiably (and credibly) frantic minicab controller and Kevin Eldon as the driver who denies any knowledge of one of London’s great termini, Victoria Station comes off fine — and Night pretty well too.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “The Nobel Laureate and grand old man of British theatre is much more than a master of menace and a passionate hater of all things American…. those involved in this staging of his sketches and monologues (1958-2006) want to show that in Cilla Black's immortal phrase, our Harold is also a ‘lorra lorra laffs’…. The result is one of the most punishingly unfunny evenings I have ever endured in a theatre. The fault isn't really Pinter's, though for reasons that escape me he has given this misconceived show his blessing when he should have withheld the rights from these bumbling incompetents crudely directed by Sean Foley…. Every gesture is overdone, every line over-emphasised, as if the performers don't trust Pinter to do most of their work for him. As a result all subtlety is lost. At times, one simply stares at the floor in embarrassment, especially when Phillips is playing a drunken Hooray, or Bailey goes into a ridiculous head-nodding routine like one of those novelty dogs you still sometimes see on the parcel shelf of cars…. By the end, you feel you've been force-fed soggy canapés for a couple of hours without being offered the main meal and the result is a bad case of theatrical dyspepsia.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent – “From the moment Bill Bailey walked on and instructed us not to feel inhibited about showing our enjoyment in this ‘up-and-coming writer Harold Pinter’, I had the sinking sense the enterprise was doomed. This is not an enjoyable evening and indeed there are sequences where it is barely endurable, but it is an instructive one. It proves that you don't make Pinter funny by failing to trust the words and engaging instead in a lot of desperate mugging…. Directed with inexplicable incompetence by Sean Foley the evening misjudges just about everything. In its crass, strenuous jokiness, it will give the false impression that Pinter's People are lousy company.”
- by Caroline Ansdell