AN UNEXPECTED PLEASURE
Party Time/celebration Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until January 26
It is hard as a theatre critic not to take almost as much pleasure in the hatreds as the enthusiasms. Over two decades of reviewing, I have seldom, if ever, had a good word to say about Harold Pinter. His work always seemed to me to be too nihilistic and bleak, with little thought apparently given to his plays’ construction and often no sense whatsoever of plot. A lot of the underlying attitudes – not least the misogyny – I found repellent. I also resented paying good money to listen to those famous long silences of his.
I startle myself therefore to admit that I enjoyed Party Time and Celebration, the double bill of plays that mark the latest instalment in the Pinter season at the theatre that bears his name. Of course a lot of it comes down to the acting: how could you go wrong with an ensemble that includes Phil Davis, Celia Imrie and Ron Cook?
They appear in both of the two short plays directed by Jamie Lloyd that run to about half an hour each. The second work – Pinter’s final play – feels very much like an extension of the first, only the characters are at a proper sit-down dinner at a fancy restaurant, whereas in the first they are at a pretentious cocktail party.
There is a sense of unease at both occasions. Cook is superb in the first as a self-made and self-important man, who, when told by his host (Davis) that he admires people like him, replies “so do I”, and laughs smugly at his own joke. He has his own island, and hints that he has some involvement in government when he talks obliquely about the need for a “cast-iron peace”.
Imrie is, meanwhile, a delight as posh old broad banging on about the people she knew from her tennis club who are now largely dead, but she is not that bothered as she never liked them.
As these snippets of conversations go on, there is in their midst an increasingly desperate character called Dusty
(Eleanor Matsuura), who fears for the safety of her brother, Jimmy. He eventually appears at the end, bloodied and beaten and played with a great sense of despair by Abraham Popoola.
Celebration is a more overtly funny work, largely dominated by Imrie, playing this time a wonderfully brassy lady with big hair, and Popoola, who is hilarious as a waiter given to interrupting the fatuous conversation with long lists of famous people his grandfather happened to know.
I’ve no idea what it all means, but it does seem to me that Pinter plays are rather like good jokes. They are all in the telling. I’ve seen some great actors trying to make them work over the years and failing, but Lloyd and his cast have, by some strange alchemy, managed to make these two work. Even if – like me – you are no great fan of Pinter, give this double bill a chance.
It does us all good to have a prejudice challenged every once in a while.
STRANGE ALCHEMY: The ensemble in Celebration