White Bear Theatre, London – until 5 June 2022
The problem with being a bit of a completist is that there always seems to be something you’ve missed. Since his demise there have been many opportunities to catch up with the work of Harold Pinter but here’s something that doesn’t get done very often, principally because it was never originally intended to grace a stage.
Preceding all of his dramatic output, Pinter’s first significant literary creation was a novel written in the early 1950s. The Dwarfs wasn’t actually published until 40 years later though the writer had reinvented it as a radio play in the early sixties. Kerry Lee Crabbe’s adaptation (last seen at The Tricycle in 2003) is now revived at the White Bear in Kennington in a spare and compelling production directed by long standing Pinter connoisseur Harry Burton.
Snow White this definitely ain’t. Set in post war Hackney, it’s an examination of male friendship played out by three young men all of whom might seem to be facets of Pinter himself. There’s Len (Ossian Perret), an edgily nervy individual who may be on the spectrum. He can recite bus timetables, flirts with mathematics, attempts to play the recorder (badly), makes a joke of his Jewish heritage and tries his hand at writing. The stumbling narrative he is attempting to construct contains the titular characters who also stand as symbols of his two associates.
Mark (Charlie MacGechan) is a sometimes actor with a line in dead pan repartee, a rather pretentious pipe and an eye for the ladies. Pete (Joseph Potter) works in the garment trade and has anger management issues laced with an unhealthy dose of paranoia. This is made manifest when he takes up with teacher Virginia (Denise Laniyan) who he then goes on to systematically abuse and degrade in front of the others. As in some of Pinter’s later work (especially Ruth in The Homecoming) it is she that holds the balance of power and her involvement with the trio eventually shatters their friendship. I was reminded of the dynamic of Yasmina Reza’s Art.
This drama is an appealing curio rather than a great play. The characters rattle around the east end of London, socialising, intellectualising, discussing art and politics, bound together by previous ties but engaged in a perpetual power struggle even as they profess devotion to each other. However, although it has some interesting things to say about toxic masculinity, its main significance lies principally in the pre echoes it contains of Pinter’s later concerns and the way the writer uses language so finely. I’m no Pinter expert (though I have seen nearly all of his subsequent work) but I found myself readily identifying snatches of The Lover, The Caretaker, Betrayal et al.
Burton’s direction tackles the (too many) multiple settings required by the play with economy and aplomb. Scene changes are dealt with efficiently and, sitting as I was by the main entranceway, there’s a big rush of energy anytime the quartet of actors enter the space.
The performances are universally excellent and, in the small space which is the White Bear, every gesture and nuance speaks volumes. Lanyian, in her professional debut, oozes icily understated control, MacGechan gradually reveals his character’s hidden depths and Perret elicits both laughter and sympathy as he acts as a buffer between his two more volatile friends.
Absolutely mesmerising, however, is Potter’s stunning performance of compelling intensity, raw anger and edge of the seat anticipation which lights up the whole play. He has the ability to turn on a sixpence going from tender understatement to volcanic fury and in one excellent sequence employs his whole self to suggest a body flailing underwater. Ever since seeing him online in the, to my mind, most outstanding lockdown performance as Sasha in Philip Ridley’s The Poltergeist, I’ve been waiting to see what this actor can do in a live situation. I wasn’t disappointed. As I said then, I haven’t been this enthused by a young actor since I saw Ben Wishaw play Hamlet; I predict great things.
Talking of burgeoning talent, The Dwarfs is flawed as a play and I suppose to get its full flavour I really ought to read the novel. It is though a fascinating glimpse into the development of one of the major playwrights of the 20th century and this production does it full credit. There are definitely more reasons for going than not, so hurry down to Kennington sometime in the next three weeks and support the talented company (Flying Colours) who have mounted this interesting revival.