Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 8 December 2018
The fourth instalment in Jamie Lloyd’s consistently enjoyable season of Harold Pinter’s short plays contrasts plays from either end of the writer’s career. Moonlight, perhaps surprisingly, is performed first. It’s the heavyweight of the evening, a play from Pinter’s final 1990s career surge when his Almeida premieres were the hottest tickets in town. Night School is a much earlier work, a radio play from 1960 that was not performed on stage for another 20 years, and a slighter work. Both, however, provide a combination of dark humour and precisely honed language for which most playwrights would kill.
Moonlight, which has a Tempest-like late career feel, takes place around the deathbed of Andy (Robert Glenister), a civil servant beset by memories. His Bel (Brid Brennan) sits by his bed, but the characters and timelines from his life constantly shift and overlap. It is as though Andy is hallucinating fragments of Pinter’s oeuvre. There is partner swapping, underworld characters, social ritual as absurd comedy, language as surface, film imagery and the impossibility of substantiating memory or meaning.
Andy loved Janie Dee’s glamorous Marie while Bel, either in reality or fantasy, loved a football referee called Fred (Peter Polycarpou). Meanwhile, he has children, but they won’t come to his bedside. Can it really be because they are a pair of Pinter-effete gangsters who claim to run a Chinese laundry? And why do the same actors (Dwane Walcott and Al Weaver) sometimes morph into civil servants who engage in high-Pinter wordplay involving parades of colleagues who they refer to only by their surnames? And why is Andy haunted by his daughter who only appears as a young woman, a refugee from ‘Don’t Look Now’?
Glenister makes the most of the role, rude to everyone in sight but with his influence over what remains of his life gone. Brennan, as his wife, exudes dangerous calm as she is, finally, in complete control. Polycarpou is a treat as the chummy ex-referee, whose reality keeps eluding Andy. Lyndsey Turner directs an excellent revival of this compelling play.
‘Night School’ is an oddity, a play with all the characters of an early Pinter play,but none of the double meaning. It has the boarding house setting of ‘The Birthday Party’ with a pair of landladies, played with glee by Janie Dee and Brid Brennan, and a supposedly perfect house guest, a school teacher called Sally played with very funny directness by Jessica Barden. Walter (Al Weaver) turns up, fresh from prison, wanting his room back. The sexual tension ratchets, and Robert Glenister’s crime boss landlord gets involved. Glenister, in more familiar, menacing mode, discovers Sally is not a school teacher, and Peter Polycarpou has another very enjoyable cameo as a nervous club owner. It’s fun, but all the secrets are systematically revealed in way that is most untypical. Ed Stambollouian, who directs, uses an on-stage drummer to provide the text with the rhythms it otherwise lacks. The play is definitely more of a curiosity than an essential piece of viewing, but even Pinter’s ephemera is well worth the effort. Continuing thanks are due to Jamie Lloyd for staging a rare treat for London theatregoers that keeps on giving.