The Hothouse – July 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Harold Pinter

Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Venue: Trafalgar Studio 1

Date: Thursday 18th July 2013

The heat definitely affected my enjoyment today, as the Trafalgar Studios simply don’t have air conditioning worth the name. And having experienced cinemas in Hong Kong where we had to wear a cardigan indoors because of the chill, there’s no excuse for the sort of heat we had to endure today. Of course, if it was difficult for us it must have been hell for the actors, especially with those suits, but at least they could get off stage from time to time to cool down, and with only forty-five minutes each way it was just bearable.

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The Homecoming – September 2011

9/10

By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: David Farr

Company: RSC

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 29th September 2011

We found this performance even better than the previous one, much sharper and with a lot more detail. Nicholas Woodeson in particular was much stronger, showing the nastier side of his character more readily, and together the cast created a powerful evening’s entertainment.

There were no significant differences in the staging; the changes were all down to the performances. Jonathan Slinger was just as good as Lenny, but had more to play against. Richard Riddell had more presence as Joey, the dumb boxer – I felt he was attracted to Ruth more as a mother figure than as a sexual partner. Justin Salinger brought out more of Teddy’s discomfiture when he finds his wife wants to stay with his family instead of returning with him to America. We reckoned that he had only stopped off to show his family how successful he was now – good job, lovely wife, three kids, etc. – so it was a shock to realise that she wasn’t entirely happy with their life together.

Aislin McGuckin’s performance showed Ruth unhappy with her current situation, but not sure how to get out of it. When the family’s offer comes along, she’s only too pleased to accept, once she’s sure she’ll get what she wants. Des McAleer was rather bland as Sam, the chauffeur brother who does the dishes, and I still felt his exclamation about Max’s dead wife, Jessie, came out of nowhere in terms of the performance, but I assume that’s the way the director wanted it played.

I was pretty tired tonight – a long drive to get here – so I missed some of the first half while I rested my eyes, but the second half kept me riveted. The subtle nuances of male/female relationships were fascinating to watch, and this cast have really got to grips with this play.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Homecoming – August 2011

7/10

By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: David Farr

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 23rd August 2011

I was keen to see this play again. We’d seen it back in February 2008, and despite the nastiness of the characters, the language gave it tremendous power. I probably took longer to tune in to this production because of the memories of that earlier one, but by the second half I was well in.

The set was more open due to the nature of the Swan. The walkways at the front had been cut off to leave a square stage which held the sitting room. A red carpet sat in the middle of the floor, with a red comfy chair back left, a wooden chair back right with a small table beside it, and another wooden chair front right, facing across the front of the stage. There was a cupboard of some kind behind the other chairs, and a gap to the stairs and front door further back. The front door was on the left, while the stairs went from midway up to the right, and had a long sideboard in front of them. The kitchen was offstage back right, and we could hear the clattering of pots and plates when Sam was washing up. The stairs went up in two flights to the second balcony, and we could see when characters were coming down them. Beside the front door hung a number of garments, coats presumably, which seemed to be stained with blood. I took this to be a reminder of the butcher’s shop that Max owned. The blank bits at the start of each scene also had the sound of flies buzzing, which was another reminder. The stage would be dark at these times except for several strips of light along the edge of the stage and up above – I have no idea what this was meant to suggest.

The performance style was similar to the earlier production, but I felt there was a lot less menace in the atmosphere. This may be partly down to the audience, with plenty of laughter coming early on and throughout the first half which diluted the tension, making it more of a light comedy. I also found it hard to hear Jonathan Slinger at times, as he kept his voice relatively soft which meant it didn’t carry as much. As a result, I found the first half less interesting, and nearly nodded off a couple of times, but Ruth and Teddy’s arrival sorted that out.

The second half started with all the men lighting up cigars while Ruth hands round the coffee cups. This was very funny, seeing all these men smartly dressed in their suits because Ruth was there. I enjoyed this half much more, and I saw some different shades of meaning in the performance. For example, I realised that Ruth may actually want to get away from Teddy, and her choice to stay may be based on the power and freedom she feels she has with his family compared to the constraints of her roles as wife and mother with Teddy. She was certainly very snappy and demanding with the family, ordering them to fetch food and drinks – reminded me of the V queen – and she negotiated a very sweet deal to set herself up as a prostitute. I felt she was installed as queen of the household from the start of the second half – possibly earlier – whereas in the Almeida production that was delayed till the end. I hadn’t remembered Sam and Max collapsing towards the end, and again that suggested a shift in power to the new kid on the block.

Overall, I felt the language was delivered better in the Almeida production, but this one also had good performances, and was well worth seeing. We’re booked again, and I hope to get even more out it next time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Dumb Waiter – May 2011

6/10

By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: Tim Astley

Company: Apollo Theatre Company

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Saturday 7th May 2011

It was interesting to see this play again. I’d enjoyed it at school; although I don’t usually ‘get’ plays just from the text, the unsettling atmosphere of menace came right off the page with this one. The venue tonight supported this feeling, with the small space and brick walls adding their own sense of dilapidated claustrophobia. The set itself comprised a back wall with a door far left and a doorway far right. There were two single cot beds either side of the central dumb waiter door, which was quite small and square. The speaking tube was to the right of that door, but lay on the floor underneath.

The actors were on stage when we entered. Ben was reading the paper on the bed on our right, while Gus was lying on the left-hand bed until close to the start, when he took his time putting his shoes on. Simon Cotton’s portrayal of this character was on the fussy side, bordering on camp. I wasn’t sure how this would work, but the tension built up pretty well, so no complaints there. Ross Ericson was fine as Ben, with just enough bluster to his authority until the final moments.

This was a reasonably good touring production, which got a very good response from the audience – friends and family, perhaps?

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Slight Ache – August 2008

6/10

By Harold Pinter

Directed by Iqbal Kahn

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Thursday 7th August 2008

This was effectively a platform performance at the Lyttelton – the set was on a raised platform at the front of the Never So Good set. It held enough furniture to represent several rooms in a big house, plus the garden. Chairs were everywhere, including a few on their side in the garden, with plants trailing all over them.

Plants featured strongly in the dialogue as well, with the usual Pinterish contretemps between husband and wife over what the plants were called and whether or not the husband actually knows which plants are in his garden. The wife is called Flora, though the husband refers to her as Fanny, even though he appears to be talking about another woman; the usual sort of thing for a Pinter play.

The story is simple. A matchseller has positioned himself by their back garden gate, and has been standing there for months, without apparently selling any matches. The husband tries to talk to him, but can’t get him to say anything. The wife has a go, and manages to get the measure of the man, priapically speaking. The husband has another go, but is stricken with some unnamed affliction, and ends up prostrate on the floor with the matchseller’s tray, while the wife gets the matchseller. End of play.

There’s more to it than that, of course. The opening scene over breakfast includes a wasp-killing sequence that was both gruesome and funny, especially when the husband, fresh from the slaughter, feels invigorated and ready to get on with the day. He’d been feeling a slight ache in his eyes, but killing the wasp seems to have worked better than aspirin.

The wife finds him later in the scullery, wanting to be left alone, and clearly obsessing about the matchseller. When she sits in the chair he’s vacated, she gets a perfect view of the man. It’s after this that the husband tells his wife to bring the man in so he can talk with him in the study. She suggests calling the police, or perhaps the vicar, which got a good laugh. He’s determined, though, so she goes out to ask the man to come in, tempting him with an offer to buy all his matches. He shuffles on stage gradually, looking very decrepit. He’s swathed in heavy clothes from head to foot, and as it’s a hot summer’s day, midsummer’s day in fact, he must be sweltering. We can see his leather balaclava and huge coat, and it turns out later he’s also wearing a jumper and a vest. No wonder he’s going so slowly and looking so weak.

The husband welcomes him into his study, and offers him drinks and a seat, but the chap just stands there, saying nothing. The husband does all the talking, and so we get to hear about the local squire as was and his three daughters, all with flaming red hair. He can’t remember what the third daughter was called, and then he gets it – Fanny, “a flower”. He’s disparaging about Fanny, and if you know your Pinter that tells you instantly she’s his wife. Frustrated at his inability to make the man talk, he does finally manage to shoo him into the corner where he’s in shade and can cool down. When he does eventually sit down, it’s on the bigger chair the husband was sitting on at the start of the scene, the first step in swapping places.

At some point the husband is overcome and has to dash out to the garden for some air. He pretends to his wife that he’s doing better with the chap than  he actually is, but she decides to go and talk to the man herself. This is where she starts to uncover more than her husband achieved. She demonstrates the unholy trinity that applies to almost all Pinter’s women characters – mother, wife, whore. She comments on the man’s disgusting smell, but inhales deeply through the chiffon scarf she’s just used to wipe his head and face. She leaves us in no doubt that she’s found a man she intends to keep, and they won’t just be talking about the garden or killing wasps.

Her husband comes along and boots her out, and it’s clear at this point that his eye trouble is getting worse. He seems to be almost blind, and his emotions are in a right state as well. He tears his jacket off, and pulls his shirt out from his trousers. To be honest, I can’t remember what he was talking about at this point, as it didn’t interest me much. He just seemed to be ranting without giving us any more insight into the play, but then he collapsed on the ground, still ranting, and I knew the end was nigh. Sure enough, the wife returns, takes the matchseller by the hand, then takes his tray away, places it on her husband’s tummy, and leaves with her new man, who’s walking with a spring in his step now.

I assume the play is about female infidelity caused by the rampant sexual lust that rages through all womankind, according to Pinter, and the effect it can have on the poor men who get enmeshed in our snares. As such I find it less interesting than some of his other plays, but still an entertaining use of an hour in the theatre. The performances were splendid, as is to be expected from Claire Higgins and Simon Russell Beale, and Jamie Beamish gave them a good blank page to project onto. This play is being continued and partnered with another short Pinter, but as we weren’t so taken with this one, we may not bother with the double bill.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Homecoming – February 2008

8/10

By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: Michael Attenborough

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th February 2008

After the first scene of this play, I wondered why it wasn’t better known, even done in schools. After the first half, I had a pretty good idea why it wasn’t done in schools, but I’m still not clear why it isn’t better known, and done more often. Perhaps the violence and misogyny put people off. If so, it’s a shame, because it’s a brilliantly written play, full of Pinter’s ambiguities and menacing intonations, and with the rhythms and cadences making it seem like a classical composition rather than a play.

The story, if it can be called that in a Pinter play, concerned the return of one of three sons to the house he grew up in. It’s an all-male household – the father, his brother, and the other two sons. The returning son has brought his wife, and in this production they’ve cast Jenny Jules as the wife, Ruth. This was suggested by Pinter himself, apparently, as well as being the director’s choice, so the juxtaposition of unknown wife and abandoned family is theoretically given an added dimension by having her played by a black actress. However, there’s nothing much in the dialogue to suggest that anyone takes any notice of her skin colour, so in some ways this was a wasted opportunity, and we’re effectively dealing with colour blind casting again. Anyway, she’s an excellent actress, and played the part with great assurance, bringing out what little of her character Pinter puts on the page. Let’s face it, he never could do women well, so this is really a play about the male relationships, and the men’s inability to relate to women as anything other than whore or saint, and often confusing the two.

The scenes give us glimpses of the characters in action. The father, Max (Kenneth Cranham) would give Alf Garnett six lengths start and still pass him well before the furlong pole. He’s a bitter, twisted old man, who spends his time alternating between smooth charm (rarely) and vicious ranting (mostly). He’s obviously done his fatherly duty by hitting his sons copiously with his stick, and I wondered what treatment his wife received when she was still alive. When he first sees Ruth, he attacks Teddy (Neil Dudgeon) for bringing a whore into the house. Even when he’s been told she’s Teddy’s wife, he still has a rant, and then he’s all charm and smarm with her.

Teddy is a strange character. At first he seems nervous and over-anxious, as he and his wife arrive. His meeting with his dad has some very uncomfortable undertones, as they square up for either a battle or a cuddle. It’s clear he’s done his best to get away from the toxic atmosphere of the house, which is why he’s been in America for the last nine years. He’s a doctor of philosophy, literally, as philosophy is his subject. He then decides to leave; presumably the family hasn’t improved over the years he’s been away. However the family want Ruth to stay and look after them, at least when she isn’t turning tricks on the side to help make ends meet. Teddy seems completely unconcerned by this, and is totally happy to leave his wife with this group of Neanderthals. Strange doesn’t quite cover it.

Lenny (Nigel Lindsay), the second son, is a smooth operator. We don’t find out what business he’s in till the second half – he runs a number of prostitutes. He seems to have got past his upbringing by no longer being frightened of his dad, but when confronted with Ruth’s calm assurance, he becomes quite nervous. Joey (Danny Dyer) is the third son, a boxer still under the influence of his dad. He’s the quiet one. There’s also Sam (Anthony O’Donnell), Max’s brother, who works as a chauffeur by day and does the dishes by night. He’s clearly the sensitive one in the family, and the only one who seems to value women for more than sex and housework.

Ruth is the typical female blank at the centre of Pinter’s work. She’s described, by herself and Teddy, as the perfect wife and mother – they have three boys back in America – yet she shows a strange tendency to use sexual allure to enthral the men in the house. She has an encounter with Lenny early on, where he tries to impress her by telling her how he beats up women (not a chat-up line I’d recommend, by the way), and she unnerves him by staying calm and asking straightforward questions. She wins the battle of wills over a glass of water, and yet she seems to be propositioning Lenny. Later, when Joey comes downstairs after spending two hours upstairs with her, it turns out he hasn’t done anything – no sex, nothing. According to his tales of other encounters with women, this is not usual. All these men are attracted to her – moths and flame spring to mind – yet they’re able to talk of putting her on the game so she can earn some money for her keep. At the end, she chooses to stay with the family, on her terms, and as her husband leaves, she’s sitting in the main chair, Max’s chair, just beginning to smile. Her reign has begun, but what sort of a reign will it be in that household? It reminded me of Lord of the Flies, but with a woman involved.

This description really doesn’t get across the beauty of the language. Even with all the swearing and crudity, it was powerful and focused. The performances got the most out of it, and although I would like to see it again, I’m not sure it could be done better. I just hope it is done again – it deserves to be.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Hothouse – August 2007

Experience: 7/10

By Harold Pinter

Directed by Ian Rickson

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Friday 31st August 2007

This was a real treat. We were up in London for other reasons this weekend, and got to see an evening performance at the National. Wow. I suspected the atmosphere would be different from matinees, and it certainly seemed to be – more lively, more of a buzz.

I hadn’t seen this play before, and I found it very typical of Pinter’s style, though clearly dated. It shows a version of Stalinist Russia, where people disappear and odd things happen, and the person in charge has to watch their back in case their second-in-command wants to take over. A bit like a Klingon ship, but less overt.

The set was a series of angled walls, which gave us Roote’s office, a staff room, and a wider view including the stairs with another room above. The décor was very fifties/sixties institutional drab. The plot was simple – a patient has died and another patient has given birth. Everybody skirts around these facts, and one of the junior members of staff is tortured to confess to being the father. Eventually, Roote (Stephen Moore) is bumped off and Gibbs (Finbar Lynch), as the last man standing, takes over the institution. There’s also a woman member of staff, Miss Cutts (Lia Williams), who seems to spend all her time latching on to whichever man is in power to ensure her safety, and Lush (Paul Ritter), the only other member of staff who could stand against Gibbs, but who seems to be on the downward slope.

What I enjoyed most about this production was the wonderful language. Pinter has a musical way with words. He finds not just a minor key, but a menace key, and manages to keep it going. It’s partly what’s not said that does it. There’s also a lovely use of repetition, when Gibbs is sort of informing Roote about the two patients (two digits are transposed, hence the confusion), the one who’s died and the one who’s given birth. The dialogue is virtually identical, with some details changed to suit the different circumstances, but otherwise it’s a straightforward reprise. Until the end, that is, when after plying Gibbs with lots of descriptive statements about the woman, Roote ends up saying “Never met her!”.

There’s also a lot of silence and stillness in this production, which are very effective. In addition, there were some wonderfully menacing sound effects, a susurration of suffering, which made the staff nervous and suggested the unrest growing in the asylum. Lovely stuff, and I’m glad we could fit it in.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me