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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Pinter's People
Haymarket Theatre      Winter 2007

This evening of 14 sketches, monologues and brief playlets written by Harold Pinter over a fifty year period could hardly have been expected to be a great success.

Most of the pieces are by their very nature trivial and throwaway, and while they might have worked in the context of the revues or political events for which they were written, the collection merely underlines their thinness.

Add to this inherent problem direction and performances that too often betray lack of confidence in the material, and you have all the makings of a depressing flop.

About a third of the short bits were written in the 1950s as blackout sketches for the sort of stage revues that might have starred Kenneth Williams, and in that context they may have had an attractively startling quality.

Two women in an all-night cafe babble on about what bus to take home. A newspaper vendor builds a whole conversation around which paper was the last to sell.

The joke lies in the banality and pointlessness, but too many of these, one after another, just seem banal and pointless.

Some of the more recent pieces have the characteristic political content and open anger of later Pinter - two torturers practically salivating over the fun they're going to have, a politician spinning repression and genocide into meaningless jargon.

But, at least as staged here, what could be powerful interludes in a political rally come across too often as heavy-handed and obvious in their ironies.

There are some strong pieces mixed in with the group, generally the longer and better-written playlets.

1969's Night shows a couple trying to reconcile their conflicting memories of how they first met. Played back then with Noel Coward brittleness, it is here given a warm and attractive reading by Bill Bailey and Geraldine McNulty, who capture the love with which they take joy in each other's reminiscences, even if the details differ.

Last To Go, the newspaper vendor sketch, also works beautifully, thanks to the perfect comic timing and underplaying of Kevin Eldon as the man and Bill Bailey as his friend.

And these two actors also catch all the nuances of the evening's longest piece, 1982's Victoria Station, the two-way radio conversation of a cabdriver and his dispatcher, both adrift in existential isolation.

But far too often, director Sean Foley exposes a fatal distrust of the material through a compulsion to gild the lilies with extraneous and counterproductive stage silliness.

The most recent piece, 2006's Apart From That, is an elliptical conversation full of enigmatic references to unspoken horrors, but Foley makes it explicit and therefore trivial by making the speakers hospital patients.

Request Stop from 1959 is the chatter of a seemingly elegant woman who gradually exposes her racism, paranoia and outright madness, but by making her a drink-sodden punk, Foley kills the whole point.

In other scenes the performers (also including Sally Phillips) are burdened with silly accents or funny walks, the director coming as close as he can to directly announcing to the audience 'I don't think this material is funny, and I'm going to try to disguise that fact from you.'

In part because he is not afraid to go a few seconds without being funny, Bill Bailey is the most successful of the four performers. But this is strictly for Pinter buffs determined to fill a few minor gaps in their experience of the Complete Works.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Pinter's People - Haymarket Theatre 2007
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