The transience of life, the permanence of love: each time I see Harold Pinter’s 1978 mini-masterpiece, I feel a little older, a little sadder. It skims the surface and bites hard on a lost secret love affair between a married woman and her husband’s best friend.
Ian Rickson’s production is very good, but Jeremy Herbert’s neutral grey design, with splashes of colour for Venice, and a stained glass window in the pub, is not sufficiently clean or clinical (lots of bumping of furniture backstage), and the performance of Kristin Scott Thomas as Emma, while suitably glacial and enigmatic, with an odd vocal wobbliness, is not as serene or enchanting as Dervla Kirwan’s at the Donmar four years ago.
That revival, in fact, was definitive. Here, the friendship of literary agent Jerry (Douglas Henshall) and publisher Robert (Ben Miles), married to Emma, runs strong but not deep. Hatchet-jawed Miles catches the impatience and cruelty of Robert very well, and even resembles Pinter himself in his black leather jacket and brusque restaurant manners.
But there’s a lip-smacking relish missing in his account of playing squash and not allowing Emma to watch them. Squash, shower, pint, lunch: no place for a woman. The fleshier, more blinkered Henshall certainly conveys the hopelessness, and the humour, of his passion, and it’s all the more poignant that we see the end of the affair in the Kilburn bedsit before the beginning.
In nine scenes – played over ninety minutes without an interval – we travel backwards from 1977 to 1968, with little shimmies forward on the way, the discovery of the affair and confession in the middle.
Technically, the play’s a marvel, and so simple. And funny, too, with its references to the unseen despised novelists, Casey and Spinks, one of whom may or may not have replaced Jerry in the adultery stakes. And I like the discreet Italian waiter of John Guerrasio, who allows the comic ambiguity of being his own father’s son as well as the father himself, who’s always been here.