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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Donmar Warehouse Theatre      Spring 2011

Harold Pinter's 1993 drama is a meditation on death, grief and missed opportunities that is, paradoxically, frequently very funny in a black comic whistling-in-the-dark way.

It is elliptical and impressionistic almost to the point at times of being pure poetry. In Pinter's signature mode we are not told things - facts, backstories, motivations - that we would be a lot happier knowing.

In addition we are presented with characters who all address and express their emotions through indirection and evasion, so we only catch glimpses of their true feelings in passing or as they slip through the speakers' defences.

The result is either fascinating and enthralling or off-putting and boring, and while leaving the theatre I heard audience members expressing both reactions.

A man sits in bed close to death, but with enough energy left to trade insults with his wife and complain about the absence of his sons, daughter and grandchildren.

The sons are estranged from him, the daughter is evidently dead - though the character appears, she is identified in the cast list as a ghost and in a programme note as a suicide - and you begin to sense that the grandchildren are fictional, perhaps the man's way of not addressing the daughter's fate.

The sons, meanwhile, appear trapped in an indolence that approaches paralysis, evading their emotions through comic role-playing and word games, while the ghostly daughter continues what was probably her lifetime desire to not bother anyone.

(There's also another couple, friends and possibly former lovers of the parents, whose brief appearances may or may not be real.)

What we are seeing are the end products of a broken family, everyone crippled in one way or another by the broken connections, unable to acknowledge the need for each other or to function without each other.

In that context the most nearly functional character is the wife/mother, who plays her husband's games and, in a brief telephone conversation, her sons' and thus manages to maintain some tenuous touch with each.

The key to making the play work is in letting us see, however vaguely, things about the characters that they don't want to expose and may not even know about themselves, and director Bijan Sheibani has guided his cast to an almost ideal level of sensitive allusiveness.

David Bradley shows us that the father's nastiness and casual cruelty are a frightened raging against the dying of the light, while Deborah Findlay, while almost never expressing open emotion, hints at the strain of keeping up the coolness that is her only tie to her husband.

As the more inventive of the sons Daniel Mays lets us understand that his constant game playing is a loving attempt to keep his brother from slipping into total despair, while Liam Garrigan makes us believe that brother's near-stasis even as we wish we understood it better.

A must for all Pinter lovers, this revival might be a bit risky for those coming to the playwright for the first time, though the potential of being fully captured by it is worth taking the chance.

Gerald Berkowitz

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