Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 26 February 2019
The culmination of Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season, which has been a triumph, is two short plays from very early in Harold Pinter’s career both of which he directs. Not has only the production of all Pinter’s short plays proved that there is a large, enthusiastic audience for apparently difficult and oblique drama; it has also made the case that Pinter’s short drama, comparatively overlooked, should be judged on a level with his full-length plays. They include some of his best writing.
The final pairing brings together The Dumb Waiter, his third play, and his fourth, A Slight Ache, written for radio. The combination is clever, as the former is an acknowledged classic while the latter, despite a 2008 National Theatre production, is less well known. It opens the bill, in a production which ingeniously builds on its radio origins.
A cut-glass couple, Edward (John Heffernan) and Flora (Gemma Whelan) are increasingly troubled by a figure standing in the lane outside their perfect, suburban house, apparently selling matches to no-one. The Matchseller, like an Ibsen character – the Button-Moulder in Peer Gynt or the Rat Wife in Little Eyolf – can only be a harbinger of death, but in Pinter’s hands the tension builds beautifully through the language of status.
Edward attempts to cow the silent Matchseller with increasingly florid attempts at rank pulling and one-upmanship, including a delightful stream of elaborate drink options, delivered with an aggressively entirely out of keeping with the subject matter. Meanwhile, Flora is keen to diffuse her husband’s fixation on the grim-smelling figure, while sexually attracted to him, incorporating him into a fantasy in which he is kept as a pet.
The play is deliciously dark and beautifully played. Whelan’s froideur falls apart deliciously as her life is disrupted and undermined, while Heffernan’s sense of mild disbelief at his own words channels Simon Russell Beale in the same part. Lloyd sets the play in a radio studio, with the actors recording their parts, but the increasing psychological temperature invades the recording booth, all the more effectively since we cannot see The Matchseller they are addressing, and he seems to exist only in their minds.
The Dumb Waiter is a simpler play, but devastatingly effective. It has a star cast pairing Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer as the two hitmen, waiting for instructions in the basement of a Birmingham restaurant. The casting is by no means for effect: both are absolutely right for their roles. Freeman plays Gus, the junior, nervier partner who asks a lot of questions. Dyer plays Ben, in charge but not necessarily in control.
The play is a masterclass in the banality of evil, the carefully honed talk of ‘The Villa’ and ‘The Spurs’ mixing with moments of utter horror (“What a mess! They don’t hold together so well do they, women.”) Dyer plays the wannabe gangster to great effect. He has the aggression, all the poses, the neck-twitching muscularity, and his every move reveals that he is not convincing himself. Freeman is full of friendly chatter, rising panic and reasonable concerns, the kind you should definitely not be raising if you are a hitman. There are moments of genuine comedy, as the dumb waiter spits out increasingly impractical food order, and the cast tread a delicate line between tension, absurdity and the ordinary as everyone, on stage and off, gropes their way forward in the dark.