Thirteen sketches by Harold Pinter, four well known television comedy actors led by Bill Bailey, and direction by Sean Foley of the Right Size, sounded like a recipe for a very decent two hours, even if the Haymarket is more suited to the upper reaches of society comedy. Pinter’s people hang around bus stops, frequent tea bars, sit on park benches and threaten each other with torture.
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.
Pinter, in fact, is done no favours at all in this presentation, which arranges the material in a random, non-chronological fashion, puncturing each item with bursts of bebop jazz music and light-up title captions, as if we were watching an episode of Frasier. The playing is hysterical verging on the moronic, with loads of extraneous gags and no idea at all about the pauses, which are filled with grimaces, not silence.
The early revue sketches come off the worst because they are played so heavy-handedly. The trades union sketch, “Trouble at the Works,” is dismayingly unfunny, while the one about two old biddies at the bus stop lacks any sense of place or passing time. The other bus stop sketch, with a drunk woman trying to get to Shepherd’s Bush while alienating her fellow queue members is positively excruciating.
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, as in the recent “Press Conference,” with a cabinet minister applying the strong arm of security to the needs of culture on the red carpet in a sea of flash cameras. In “The New World Order” two thugs exchange semantic obscenities in front of a blind-folded victim.
Over fifty years, Pinter’s sketches and short plays encompass everyday street life, human frailty and political oppression. A playlet like “Night”, which dates from 1969 and features a couple mis-remembering their first times together, has the seed of his later memory plays, and is fairly well done here by Bailey and Geraldine McNulty. But the miniature masterpiece of “Victoria Station” (1982) in which a taxicab controller tries to get through to one of his drivers stranded near Crystal Palace with a dead woman on the back seat is played by Bailey and Kevin Eldon as though there was nothing funny or sinister about it at all.
Technical deficiency, too, marks Sally Phillips’s garbled effusions as a pregnant, jabbering debutante in “Tess,” while some items such as the hospital sketch and another about two old ladies feeding ducks and lamenting the loss of a third friend hit no sort of tone or meaning whatsoever. One sits gloomily through the evening with the sort of dutiful despair one never experiences at the best of Pinter plays with proper casts.