Imagine the greatest possible disjunction that contemporary British drama could produce. A puppet show by Howard Barker? It has already happened. Brian Cox as a song-and-dance man? So has that. Now in Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Studio, an irresistible theatrical force meets an immovable object – Alan Ayckbourn directs a Harold Pinter play.
Ayckbourn, of course, has of late manifested an increasing darkness in his own plays, and Pinter's 1978 Betrayal (not one of his more remorselessly sombre works) offers fruitful common ground. Its scenic structure, too, no doubt appealed to that side of Ayckbourn which likes to play pranks with linear narrative: beginning with an awkward reunion in 1977 between two former lovers, the nine scenes rewind over as many years, following their affair in reverse and ending with Jerry's first drunken advances towards Emma.
The first couple of scenes could even have been written by Mr. A, what with Jerry's affable fuddlement and husband/best friend Robert's smiling but tortuous explanation of who knew what about whom and when. The only Pinterian shadows here lurk around Mairead Carty's over-defined performance as Emma, excessively given to staring directly away from Jerry with a glacial defensiveness.
Simon Coury brings to the part of Jerry the same deceptive naturalness with which he imbued the Fourth Tempter in the 1994 RSC production of Eliot's Murder In The Cathedral. Coury's Jerry is always half a step behind events, perhaps slightly muzzy from drink (I do not think Jerry has a scene in which he does not consume either bitter, whisky or white wine) and doing his best to keep his own betrayal of Robert slightly out of focus.
Richard Derrington's superficial, delicately pointed bonhomie as Robert reminded me of that other wronged husband, Leone Gala in Pirandello's The Rules Of The Game, who is also more in control of the situation than he takes care to seem. Derrington allows himself a single volcanic bellow at Emma on discovering the affair, not on a line pregnant in itself but on the question, "Did you hear what I said?" The rest is thin smiles, "well well"-ing and irrelevant chatter about Yeats. Again, Carty is the weak link: a little too uneasy in her silence, just as in the later (that is, earlier) scenes she overdoes Emma's supposedly youthful laughter.
Jan Bee Brown's set design artfully frames the locations (mounted on a revolve) with a mock-proscenium arch on which groups of digits helpfully illuminate during scene-changes to announce the year of the subsequent action. She may also have incorporated a touch of superb cheek concerning the perennially absent character Casey, with whom Emma is having an affair when we first see her in '77; I cannot be sure, but one of the book-jacket pictures of this roguish author looked suspiciously like an early shot of Pinter.
Ayckbourn's skill at restraining moods and moments of portent meshes well with the play, and proves that Pinter can on occasion be enjoyably staged beyond its usual monochrome register without sacrificing its gravity or power.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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