Show type: Theatre
Bill Bailey, Sally Phillips, Kevin Eldon and Geraldine McNulty appear in an evening of rarely seen Harold Pinter sketches during a limited four-week run at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket. Sean Foley directs the 13 sketches, dating from Pinter's earliest days as a playwright in the 1950s up to 2002. First night: February 1, 2007
Harold Pinter might not be everyone’s first choice as a comedy scriptwriter. The Nobel laureate is known for his serious agenda, bleak dialogue and a penchant for heavyweight topics such as death, torture and the Holocaust. But then in comedy, black is the new… well, black, as laughs are increasingly found amid dark situations.
Yet director Sean Foley and his cast – with the playwright’s apparent blessing - have decided to play this selection most deliberately for laughs. It might fly in the face of the usual mantra that less is more, but characters appear exaggerated and the funny lines more blatantly flagged up – a bid perhaps, to make Pinter accessible for the Little Britain generation. As if to prove the point, one of the female tramps whiling away their time at an all-night café sounds uncannily like Catherine Tate’s foul-mouthed Nan.
On the other hand, this could be taken as an indication of the timeless quality of Pinter’s writing. The 13 sketches here date from 1958 To 2002, and for many you’d be hard-pressed to know exactly which era they come from.
Highlights of this larger-than-life approach come courtesy of Sally Phillips, who plays both an overexcitable, hormonal, old-school BBC gal and Tess, a ditzy, semi-coherent, flirtatious It-girl, with just the right level of verve and confidence to overcome their two-dimensional characterisation. In contrast, Geraldine McNulty’s drunken, ranting, harridan in the Request Stop sketch is reduced to a tiresome stereotype harassing the rest of the bus queue.
The team are on more solid ground when true to Pinter’s forte: the sticky, awkward conversations as people desperately try to communicate but struggle to make even the most basic of connections.
Bill Bailey and Kevin Eldon share two great scenes. In the first Bailey plays a minicab controller trying to make contact – in more senses that one - with a driver losing his fragile grip on reality; a sketch that moves subtly from comic misunderstanding to a much bleaker place. In the second, Last To Go, Bailey’s snack bar worker and Eldon’s evening newspaper salesman manage a stilted non-conversation that at once says nothing and everything.
Anyone who’s seen Bailey in Edinburgh Fringe productions such as 12 Angry Men will know the man can act; tie back that unkempt mane of Marillion-roadie hair and he is lost in a new character, and has a special knack for resigned disappointment that fits Pinter well. Night, his scene with McNutly as a late middle-age couple piecing together a feasible account of their first encounter from their contradictory memories is another of the highlights. As for Eldon, he does well not only as the smug, supercilious, socially inept pedant that seems to suit him so well in the sketch called That’s Your Trouble, but in any role demanded of him.
But for all that is good, Pinter’s People is still a hit-and-miss affair – a phrase so often used to describe sketch shows, but one that sounds a very disappointing note here, given this is half a century’s work from a writer of Pinter’s immense stature.
It’s also tricky to pinpoint its exact appeal. It’s fascinating as piece of theatrical history, providing a much-anticipated airing for rarely performed sketches by the sort of hip and talented cast you mightn’t otherwise expect to be involved in this sort of thing. But while Pinter completists – or even comedy ones – might devour it, the casual West End visitor may looking for something more substantial, and more consistent, than these disparate sketches. But you can’t deny its curiosity value.
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett