The Theatreguide.London Review
Wyndham's Theatre Autumn 2016
Since its first production in 1975, starring Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, Harold Pinter's most obscure and enigmatic play has been more a welcome excuse to watch two skilled actors at work than anything else.
And so it is with this revival starring the pair of classical-actors-turned-blockbuster-movie-stars, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. You probably won't understand most of the play, and that probably won't spoil your enjoyment.
This much is fairly clear. Patrick Stewart plays Hirst, a successful and alcoholic writer who has somehow picked up Ian McKellen's somewhat seedier self-proclaimed poet Spooner on Hampstead Heath and brought him home for a drink and chat.
When Hirst drinks himself into a stupor he is taken to bed by his mildly sinister carers, leaving Spooner locked in for the night. The next morning Hirst greets Spooner as a lifelong friend, and the two share memories of their youth, including extended tales of cuckolding each other.
(It should be noted that this whole sequence has the feeling of fiction, a kind of one-upmanship in creative point-scoring being made up as they go along.)
Spooner asks for a job as Hirst's secretary, but by then Hirst is too drunk – in the no man's land of cold indifference and escape from life – to respond.
There's something in there about the sadness of old age, and about two men bound by that condition (if not by a shared past) awkwardly reaching out to each other but not really able to offer each other enough.
But there is mainly the opportunity to watch McKellen play the glibness of a lifelong hustler while allowing hints of real desperation to peep through, while Stewart lets his alert and darting eyes leave us unsure just how out-of-it he is in his drunkenness.
The whole who-cuckolded-who-first sequence is a delightful exercise in responsive acting as they take turns silently listening and reacting to the other's increasingly outrageous claims.
I have seen actors more successful in filling in the gaps in psychology and backstories that Harold Pinter had a lifelong commitment to not spelling out, most notably Michael Gambon's Hirst at the National Theatre eight years ago, making us feel if not fully identify the pain that generated the man's alcoholism.
So on that level the two stars here, along with director Sean Mathias and Damien Molony and Owen Teale as the carers, haven't done as much to illuminate and enrich the play as we might hope.
But they are fun to watch, and with this particular play that may be all we dare ask for.
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