Susannah Clapp on theatre
The surprises continue in an extraordinary Pinter season. Plus, the rise and rise of Sheila Atim
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’.