Comedy Theatre, London SW1
Opened 29 January, 2008

Director Jamie Lloyd’s twin strengths sit oddly together: musicals and Pinter. One can argue that the nuancing of the latter’s work in performance is akin to musical timing and choreography, but it seems a tad sophistical. Nevertheless, to Lloyd’s music-theatre successes as Michael Grandage’s lieutenant on Evita and Guys And Dolls was added, just over a year ago, a lauded production of The Caretaker at Sheffield, which later toured including a stint at the Tricycle in London, and now this double bill. The pieces (running about 50 minutes each in Lloyd’s staging) were last seen in the West End a decade ago at the Donmar along with the later A Kind Of Alaska, but these two date from the period of Pinter’s first full flowering.
The Collection (1961) is in many respects essence de Pinter. The crucial event, before the action opens, is an adulterous tryst between Stella (Gina McKee) and Bill (Charlie Cox) in a hotel in Leeds. Stella’s husband James interrogates Bill, who gives a number of differing accounts and strikes up a relationship by turns cordial and antagonistic with him; Bill’s older mentor Harry visits Stella and then throws the account he has gleaned into the stew.
Anyone familiar with Pinter will be completely unsurprised at the confusions and contradictions, nor will they turn a hair at the characters’ unexplained abilities to track one another down to their respective homes. The sudden, enigmatic arrival is a keynote of the playwright’s work, as is the ever-shifting flux of power-play between the men. Unlike her counterpart in The Homecoming a few years later, Stella does not really have a power vector of her own here; she is a pretext for the dance of the other three. Timothy West is on solid form as Harry, Charlie Cox is assured in only his second professional stage production and Richard Coyle never less than compelling as James. Ultimately, though, the piece feels less than seminal, and something of an anticlimax after the first half of the evening.
For The Lover is no less strange and scarcely less shocking now than it must have been on its television première in 1963. We may be more familiar with sexual roleplay both in drama and in private life, but the unsettlement of voyeurism remains, even before that Pinterian uncertainty kicks in at full strength. We watch Coyle and McKee as Richard and Sarah exchange bourgeois banter about their respective afternoon bits on the side – her “lover”, his “whore” – and then an encounter which reveals that this is an adultery fantasy (or a nexus of them) that the couple engage in to keep their twin-bedded marriage a-simmer.
McKee dons her slinky black dress and high heels with a fetishistic luxuriance, then she and Coyle as “Max” seduce each other by pattering on a pair of bongos between them; it sounds absurd, but is electric in performance, and of course symbolises the primitive in contrast to their self-consciously blithe exchanges in propriis personis earlier. When “Max” declares that he is breaking off the affair, and Richard a little later similarly commands Sarah to end it, we feel a kind of horror at the upheaval, and cannot miss the desperation and even fatalism in the new settlement the couple arrive at.
McKee and Coyle command rapt if uncomfortable attention at every instant. Lloyd brings out in them an awareness that each line is a gambit, whether as husband, wife, lover or slut, and that this is an improvisation where virtually everything is at stake. It is not just gripping, but gripping in intimate and sensitive areas.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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