Su­san­nah Clapp on the­atre

The sur­prises con­tinue in an ex­tra­or­di­nary Pin­ter sea­son. Plus, the rise and rise of Sheila Atim

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda - Pin­ter at the Pin­ter Pin­ter the­atre, Lon­don SW1; un­til 26 Jan Time Is Love/Tiempo es Amor Fin­bor­ough, Lon­don SW10; un­til 26 Jan

It has been hard to guess where light­ning will strike in Jamie Lloyd’s rev­e­la­tory Harold Pin­ter sea­son, which groups to­gether the drama­tist’s short plays. The in­ter­est of Pin­ters Five and Six, di­rected re­spec­tively by Pa­trick Mar­ber and Lloyd, is mul­ti­far­i­ous: his­tor­i­cal, com­i­cal, alarm­ing. For me, the high point was an ap­par­ently mod­est of­fer­ing in Five (a triple bill of The Room/Vic­to­ria Sta­tion/ Fam­ily Voices). A tight two-han­der writ­ten in 1982, Vic­to­ria Sta­tion de­liv­ers in one heated, bated breath a thriller, a comic turn and a meta­phys­i­cal mys­tery.

Soutra Gil­mour (who de­signs the whole lot) has cre­ated an anti-ad­vent cal­en­dar: no new birth at the end of this drama. Half­way up a huge brown wall, two win­dows are open, far apart. Colin McFar­lane sits in golden light, staunch with ther­mos and muf­fler. He is the con­troller of a fleet of cabs, seek­ing a driver to go to Vic­to­ria sta­tion. Ru­pert Graves, lit with a sil­very tinge, is fugitive – dodg­ing the calls on his time, eva­sive about where he is. Mar­ber’s finely cal­i­brated pro­duc­tion draws on his own ex­pe­ri­ence as a standup: the two bat around di­a­logue with top-notch tim­ing. Yet the hu­mour slides with com­plete nat­u­ral­ness into dif­fer­ent reg­is­ters: earthy and sin­is­ter, as Graves dis­closes that he has a re­cum­bent fe­male with him (“I’m keep­ing her”); oth­er­worldly and metaphor­i­cal as McFar­lane pro­claims him­self “ap­pointed by God”.

There are notes of Beckett, but they are de­liv­ered air­ily. The Room (1957) has a heav­ier hint at Wait­ing for Godot, in the sud­den ap­pear­ance of a blind man. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing tem­plate for the later plays: an iso­lated cou­ple; un­ex­plained vis­i­tors; claus­tro­pho­bia; bul­ly­ing. Gil­mour’s chilly de­sign and cos­tumes show how eas­ily cosi­ness can be­come bleak: the HP sauce; the elec­tric bar fire; that headscarf. Jane Hor­rocks – peaky and gar­ru­lous – makes ev­ery stare over a teacup seem telling. But the plot moves in lit­tle runs; it could stop or start at any point. Not so Fam­ily

Voices, writ­ten for ra­dio in 1980, which spins flu­idly along, with nuggety di­a­logue (“her toes were quite rest­less”) and Luke Thal­lon pulling off an ex­tra­or­di­nary feat of mul­ti­cas­t­ing, nim­bly tak­ing on both geezer and toff.

In Pin­ter Six, Lloyd in­ge­niously brings to­gether two plays in which gai­ety dances over chasms. Party Time (1991) twists around a neat pun. It is hinted that char­ac­ters ap­par­ently meet­ing for cock­tails may be part of an­other cat­e­gory of party, as so­cialites be­gin to look like ap­pa­ratchiks. It is de­liv­ered with poise by the same ac­tors who per­form with buoy­ant ex­trav­a­gance in Cel­e­bra­tion. This 2000 drama has al­ways been a mag­net for ex­cep­tional cast­ing: the orig­i­nal Almeida pro­duc­tion in­cluded Lind­say Dun­can and Lia Wil­liams – and a walk-on part for the then un­known play­wright Nina Raine. Celia Im­rie and Tracy-Ann Ober­man are par­tic­u­larly glo­ri­ous here, cleav­aging away in span­gly out­fits and hair ram­pant; a fine con­trast to the del­i­cate cool­ness of Eleanor Mat­suura’s maitresse d’. The bril­liant cen­tral con­ceit tips its hat to Bernard Shaw, who in You Never Can Tell fea­tured a waiter far wiser than the big­wigs he serves. Abra­ham Popoola has a lovely aplomb as Pin­ter’s waiter who breaks into the bab­ble of af­flu­ent din­ers with his ob­ser­va­tions about TS Eliot, the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­pire and Wil­liam Faulkner.

Lloyd di­rects with at­ten­tion­grab­bing pace but he knocks some of the nu­ance out of Pin­ter. Played bois­ter­ously over the top, with moues and flat vow­els, it be­comes a par­ody of the nou­veau riche – a bit Abi­gail’s Party and a touch snob­bish. It would be equally funny and more pen­e­trat­ing done slightly posher. No faulting, though, the beau­ti­fully staged con­clu­sion, in which Pin­ter goes be­yond satire into dream­land.

Sheila Atim has had a tremen­dous few years. In 2016 she was trans­fix­ing as Fer­di­nand in the Don­mar Tem­pest. Then she star­tled au­di­ences with the di­rect force of her voice in Girl from the North Coun­try. Now Ché Walker’s pro­duc­tion of his play Time Is Love/Tiempo es Amor lets us see close up, in the tiny Fin­bor­ough, what makes her such a bea­con as an ac­tress. She has also com­posed the mu­sic that runs through the pro­duc­tion as a sound­scape of mur­murs, rum­bles of sub­ter­ranean dis­tur­bance, enig­matic warn­ing chimes. She has cited Stan Getz and Ken­drick La­mar as in­flu­ences. The ef­fect is to sum­mon up 21st-cen­tury Los An­ge­les.

There is a par­tic­u­lar pi­quancy to her cast­ing, as last year Atim ap­peared as Emilia in the Globe’s Othello. Walker’s episodic play takes off from some of the cen­tral themes of Shake­speare’s play – the ma­nip­u­la­tion, the jeal­ousy – but puts Latin Amer­i­cans at the cen­tre of the ac­tion, which is set of­ten in prison and lap-danc­ing clubs and imag­ines what would have hap­pened had Des­de­mona ac­tu­ally had an af­fair.

Walker has been a com­pelling stage writer, as his 2008 Front­line and the sub­se­quent suc­cess of

Been So Long (which went from a 1998 Royal Court play to a 2018 Net­flix film) has proved. But though Time Is Love some­times flares into fer­vency, the drama sput­ters. The set-up of char­ac­ters is not strong enough to make their dis­in­te­gra­tion mat­ter; flash­backs con­fuse; the di­a­logue does not fight its way to clar­ity in the pas­sages of un­trans­lated Span­ish. It is the per­for­mances that bring vi­vac­ity. Gabriel Akuwudike, as the man who seeks vengeance for be­ing be­trayed, is open and force­ful. Atim – a lap dancer – is tremen­dous. She ra­di­ates power but never seems to im­pose it. At mo­ments of great­est febril­ity she will slow down her speech, drop her voice, laugh. She never hur­ries a ges­ture. She has her own time. And the time is now.

In Pin­ter Six, Lloyd in­ge­niously brings to­gether two plays in which gai­ety dances over chasms

Celia Im­rie (cen­tre), Tracy-Ann Ober­man (sec­ond right) and com­pany in Cel­e­bra­tion, one of two plays in Pin­ter Six. Pho­to­graph by Marc Bren­ner

BE­LOW Luke Thal­lon dou­bling as geezer and toff in Pin­ter Five. Pho­tographs by Marc Bren­ner; DWGH

RIGHT Sheila Atim in Time Is Love at the Fin­bor­ough: ‘ra­di­ates power but never seems to im­pose it’.

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