The last time these two short early plays of Harold Pinter were seen in London, they were presented on a triple bill at the Donmar Warehouse with a third item, A Kind of Alaska, which placed the brutal comedy and blatant sexiness of The Lover and The Collection into sharper relief.
On their own, the two plays, even in this fine production by Jamie Lloyd, betray their origins as television pieces. In The Lover, the time jumps in the narrative of a married couple spicing up their relationship with erotic “let’s pretend” are not really effective as a theatrical device, while The Collection does not gain from its rapid switch of locations behind a proscenium arch.
Still, Lloyd’s direction smoothes over the bumps with considerable finesse and never misses a beat in its musical delivery of the texts. And in Gina McKee, Pinter has an ideal performer in her qualities of physical slinkiness and teasing, enigmatic thoughtfulness. In each play, she conveys an almost miraculous ability to stand aside from herself in another role: in The Lover, as a different kind of wife, in The Collection as a different kind of person.
The Lover is about role-playing, The Collection about versions of the truth driven by the need to know too much. The second play has a deeper charge and mystery about it: in trying to ascertain what might have happened in a Leeds hotel room on trip to a fashion show, the characters reveal their emotional frailties and strengths.
None more so than Timothy West as Harry, whose possessiveness pushes him further into the life of his younger flat-mate Bill (Charlie Cox) than is good for his sanity. There is a brisk edginess about West that eliminates any sense of impropriety even as he itemises Bill’s “slum sense of humour” in the great speech about his partner’s unreliability.
The explanation seems to satisfy James (Richard Coyle) whose own line of enquiry throws up details of room numbers and pyjama styles that suggest he is either making them up or taking them on trust from his wife in another conversation completely. The beauty of the writing is that you never feel let down by its evasion or ambiguity; the style is absolutely concrete, the switches between fantasy and conviction utterly persuasive.
Soutra Gilmour’s design and Jon Clark’s lighting create the right sort of slightly unreal atmosphere for both plays which, for all their shortcomings as theatre pieces, still proclaim the originality and slyness of a master dramatist at the start of his career.