Forty years after its premiere, Harold Pinter's Old Times - the first Pinter play to be presented in the new Harold Pinter theatre (formerly the Comedy) - still hasn't yielded up all of its mysteries: "A work of beautiful elegiac obliquity," said Michael Billington in his definitive Pinter biography.
But it's also a particular kind of memory play about the 1940s, its social contracts and fissures, its music and mores and metropolitan moodiness, its new sexual camaraderie. And it's not so much a whodunnit as a "what happened," and can we be sure?
Ian Rickson's production is played fast and true, and without an interval, pressing all the right buttons and a few unexpected ones, with a delightful potpourri of period songs, references to Carol Reed's film noir Odd Man Out and curious comic mis-emphases: "You have a wonderful casserole... I mean, wife."
The play's love trio are the filmmaker Deeley - Rufus Sewell returning to the London stage in a performance of rasping swagger and bravado - his wife, Kate, and her best friend, possibly Deeley's former lover, Anna. The latter is first seen silhouetted against an upstage window while Kate and Deeley talk of friendship and underwear.
Kristin Scott Thomas as the lustrous mistress Anna and Lia Williams as the pinched, vengeful wife Kate (alternating as these characters who have not met, they say, for 20 years) wear somewhat dodgy wigs but otherwise unleash all sorts of rabbits and reprisals in their banter of memory and one-upping.
The play is so elusive you might imagine it as a film Deeley is now making. And that would explain Hildegard Bechtler's gauzy, dream-like setting of an anonymous drawing room in the first act and the deeper glow (lighting by Peter Mumford) of the bedroom (with two divans and an armchair) in the second, where games of love and possession are played in a spirit of recollection.
But what's so compelling about the play is that hard detail is always bumping up against the dreaminess: in Pinter's idiomatic language, in the accounts of the Edgware Road philosophers, the Maida Vale gang, the well-constructed jokes ("I was interested once in the arts, but I can't remember which ones they were"). Like Beckett, Pinter is re-modelling a Proustian literature of memory in music hall parlance.
Rickson's production charts all these shifting tonal alliances with exquisite good taste, and right at the end you are led to believe, or you can allow yourself to think you have been led to believe, that you have been watching ghosts. The past, for these people, is another country, as our lives may seem to be illusions even as we exist.
Photo: Kristin Scott Thomas as Anna & Lia Williams as Kate (Credit - Simon Annand)