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Review Round-up: Early Pinter Plays Hold up Well

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Two short Harold Pinter plays originally written for television came to life on stage this week care of Richard Coyle, Gina McKee, Charlie Cox and Timothy West, who opened on Tuesday night (29 January 2008, previews from 15 January) in the double bill of The Lover and The Collection, which runs for a limited season until 3 May at the Comedy Theatre (See Also 1st Night Photos, 30 Jan 2008).

In 1962’s The Collection, Harry (West) and dress designer Bill (Cox), who share a house in Belgravia, are disturbed by an anonymous phone call from James (Coyle), whose model wife Stella (McKee) has confessed to a one-night stand with Bill. In 1963’s The Lover, husband and wife Richard and Sarah (Coyle and McKee) use the fantasy of infidelity to spice up their romance, but the charade spills over into real life.

Jamie Lloyd, who directed the recent revival of Pinter’s The Caretaker at Sheffield Crucible and the Tricycle, helms the double bill, which is designed by Soutra Gilmour and produced by Howard Panter for the Ambassador Theatre Group, Tulchin/Bartner Productions and Sweet Pea Productions.

First-night critics all noted the plays’ television origins and, with a few misgivings, thought that, under Jamie Lloyd’s direction, they had weathered the screen-to-stage transition well. The pair also served as a reminder that a) early Pinter survives well, b) the playwright has a “sharply comic eye and ear”, and c) as a former actor, he’s adept at writing challenging roles for actors. In response to the last, the four-strong cast here deliver “pristine” performances in a piece that is “strongly recommended”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “On their own, the two plays, even in this fine production by Jamie Lloyd, betray their origins as television pieces … 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 a 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 flatmate 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 … 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.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “These two one-acters, both originally written for television, not only prove early Pinter survives well, they also remind us that Pinter, for all his touted mystery and menace, has always had a sharply comic eye and ear for the oddities of English middle-class life … And, in Jamie Lloyd's production, Gina McKee dazzlingly shifts from loyal wife, who might well make jam for the WI, to sexy predator sliding lasciviously across the floor on all fours. Richard Coyle as the harassed, knackered hubby could do more to suggest incipient breakdown … Admittedly The Collection, with its multiple scenes and set split between two households in Soutra Gilmour's cluttered design, betrays its TV origins. But Lloyd's production gets the essential point across. What matters is not whether the married Stella did or did not sleep with Bill, the junior partner in a gay couple, in a Leeds hotel room. The real issue is the way her husband James is ineluctably drawn to bisexual Bill. And here there are strong intimations of The Servant as Coyle's ambivalent James plays weird games with Charlie Cox's Bill and in one suggestively straddles him … But there is a lot of comedy in Pinter's riddle-me-ree here well brought out by Timothy West as Bill's elderly lover.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “Both plays involve intimate relationships, mainly marriage. Both involve mistrust and the difficulty of knowing whether other people mean what they say and say what they mean. Both involve not quite being sure what you yourself want and are. And both remind you that Pinter was an actor, capable of writing roles that, in Jamie Lloyd’s revival, challenge Gina McKee, Richard Coyle, Timothy West and Charlie Cox to find subtlety and ambiguity in their performances … But the acting is mostly immaculate, with Coyle and West expressing their inner anger and frustration in oblique Pinteresque ways (an aggressive demand for olives here, a crumpled newspaper there), a pale McKee looking close to breakdown, and Cox accentuating Bill’s casual insolence, maybe at the cost of the sulky resentment inside him.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Harold Pinter has never offered us more illuminating, sexually-related pleasure than in these two exquisite one-acters, premiered in the early 1960s when Britain was beginning to shed cherished inhibitions … The Collection, in which film star Charlie Cox stages a dazzling West End debut as a sexually ambivalent dress designer on whom a husband and wife have secret designs, works particularly well … But Cox, though he wrongly makes his character a middle-class smoothie rather than the working-class opportunist that Pinter intended, puts on a brilliant taunting show - by turns dead-pan, sexy, ambiguous and submissive, as he keeps varying his stories about Leeds. While in The Lover home-truths are faced, in The Collection they remain tantalisingly elusive.”
    • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) - “As a potent reminder of the dark vigour of Pinter's sense of humour and taste for unnerving flights of absurdity, Jamie Lloyd directs a highly stimulating and expertly acted revival of two one-act plays, The Lover and The Collection, both first seen on television in, respectively, 1963 and 1961. Watching them, I was struck by how early Pinter had given hints of a preoccupation that was to bloom fully in Betrayal (1978) – namely, the erotic tension between two men in a love-triangle for a woman who proves to be less important to them than their own relationship … The acting is pristine in its witty, unsettling suggestiveness, and in the skill with which it keeps pace with the script's sudden lunges into laugh-aloud loopiness … Strongly recommended.”

      - by Tom Atkins & Terri Paddock

      ** Don’t miss our Whatsonstage.com Outing to The Lover / The Collection on 25 February 2008 – including a FREE programme, FREE drink & post-show Q&A – EXTRA tickets now added to this previously sold-out event!!! - click here to book now! **

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