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Betrayal (Northcott Theatre, Exeter)

Paul Jepson directs Pinter's play about a seven-year affair

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Nick Moran (Jerry) and Sarah-Jane Potts (emma)
© Pooch Purtill

With a starry West End revival of The Caretaker waiting in the wings, the timing is perfect for a new production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, Paul Jepson's first outing as director since taking over the Northcott Theatre a year ago.

He wanted to breathe new life into the theatre, to connect the venue - isolated on a university campus - with the community which it serves. He's chosen well with this modern theatrical classic, a story of what it is like to betray, and to be betrayed in turn.

Emma is married to Robert. Jerry is married to Judith. Emma and Jerry have been having an affair for seven years. The betrayal is obvious - Emma and Jerry have cheated on their spouses.

But Jerry has also betrayed a long-standing friendship with Robert, a man who has had affairs throughout his marriage. And Jerry's (unseen) wife Judith has a flirtatious friendship with a fellow doctor. Is she cheating on him?

And, in a casual admission of violence against his wife, Robert is again betraying her and their marriage vows. From grand betrayals we venture into the world of petty lies and mistruths - the games that literary agent Jerry and publisher Robert play with the people they work with.

Pinter's drama, first published in 1978, initially feels like a period piece. There are no mobile phones, no threat of exposure from social media, and Robert and Emma can easily conduct their affair at a little rented flat in Kilburn.

But Betrayal also feels very 'now'. The clever dialogue, the complex and changing landscape of ideas, expressed with wit and intelligence. Pinter tells his story backwards. From a meeting between Emma and Jerry, two years after their affair has ended, through the ramifications of its exposure, its pathetic end, the passion and pleasure at its height and the very moment where it all began.

The simplicity of this production - designed by Timothy Bird - allows the audience to concentrate on what they see and hear. Jepson keeps it clean and crisp with a minimum of fuss. As with all Pinter's work, it's the text, and the silence which pulls audiences in. Always.

The cast play off each other very well. Sarah-Jane Potts presents Emma with a real lightness of touch as she seamlessly transfers her affections between Robert (Simon Merrells) and Jerry (Nick Moran). Not one of the protagonists has the complete picture. There is anger, guilt, regret, pain and passion, but not necessarily where you'd expect it. The pace is brisk, even with Pinter's trademark pauses, and all the better for it.

The cast manage to squeeze plenty of humour which helps to reveal them as the self-absorbed individuals they all are. The person the three characters have really betrayed is themselves. An auspicious start to Jepson's tenure at the Northcott.

Betrayal runs at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter until 5 March.