There are no balloons or party poppers but a good time is guaranteed with Party Time and Celebration, a standout Pinter Six from the consistently strong Pinter at the Pinter season in London’s West End.
This perfectly curated collection of Pinter shorts and sketches, revived by Jamie Lloyd for a run at, where else but the Harold Pinter Theatre, has motored along since their launch in September.
We’re now on the home stretch and, for me, Six has proved the most memorable while Pinter Five, also seen by critics during a day of Pinter on Friday, the most diverse.
What is astonishing about Party Time (1991) and Celebration (2000) is how the social satires have not only endured but their themes of class, insecurity, power and isolation are as relevant now as when they were written.
The chasm grows ever wider between the gold plated lifestyles of company bosses and oligarchs, and their poorly paid workers surviving on food bank handouts and payday loans.
But will it ever lead to rioting or French-style yellow vest protests on the streets and would those with power move against them?
Party Time plunges the audience into a 1984-style Dystopian nightmare where the wealthy few live in rarefied splendour while the hoi polloi are kept outside and in their place.
Lloyd presents a highly stylised production with Soutra Gilmour’s black set every bit as sombre as the cast’s costumes and demeanour.
It is where the rich worship Mammon with champagne and small talk in the company of power broker Gavin (Phil Davis).
It doesn’t look much fun. There are a lot of awkward, vacuous conversations among the men (Gary Kemp’s Fred being told how beautiful he is, Ron Cook’s Douglas ingratiating himself).
They are all high-achievers while the women are told to shut up and be grateful.
Pinter’s misogyny appears to be working overtime although I do wonder if he’s using it for purely for the shock value.
I had a hard time preventing my plus-one from leaping on stage and slapping John Simm’s revolting Terry in the face for his atrocious abuse of his wife, Dusty. She just took it. Her champion wanted to throw a glass of red wine at him, at the very least.
The men strut and boast about their success and achievements…and then there’s Celia Imrie trying to compete with the boys.
Goodness it’s a shock to hear her swear even with a cut glass accent.
Celebration kicks back the gloom of its partner with a gloriously ripe comedy that, apparently, Pinter wrote after a visit to the luvvies’ favourite West End eaterie, The Ivy.
So it was rather amusing to see in the programme notes that The Ivy very generously provided the table settings, crockery and glassware for the production.
Here’s a couple of duckers and divers, Lambert (Cook) and his brother, Matt (Davis again), who have taken their brassy, gloriously coiffured wives, sisters Julie (Tracy-Ann Oberman) and Prue (Imrie) to a posh London restaurant to celebrate a wedding anniversary.
At another table is volatile banker, Russell (Simm), and his dim but lovely blonde trophy wife, Suki (Katherine Kingsley just wonderful) who, it turns out, once had a fling behind the filing cabinets with Lambert.
Watching over these two tables is Gary Kemp’s affected restaurateur, Richard, and his maitress’D, Sonia (Eleanor Matsuura) while Abraham Popoola’s largely overlooked waiter (who ever remembers their waiter?) does his best to offer cultural soundbites to the philistines at the tables.
Everything about Celebration is a performance, from Richard’s sad attempts to replicate the warmth of his childhood with complimentary gherkins, to Lambert and Matt harking back to their upbringing.
Richard and Sonia do their best to give the impression of bonhomie in front of their trashy customers while all six, dressed to the nines, flash the cash but have little love or humanity for each other.
The loneliness, isolation and alienation in Pinter Five show the playwright at his most challenging, confrontational and disturbing.
I’ve never seen so many members of the audience reach for Google on their phones after watching the bewildering and bleak opener, The Room, Pinter’s first ever play.
There was a lot of head scratching. What was that ending all about?
Pinter apparently knocked it off in a couple of days and, while powerful, violent and thought-provoking, it is highly ambiguous, leaving questions unanswered and scenes unresolved.
Rupert Graves, as lorry driver Bert Hudd, doesn’t utter a word during the opening scenes but glumly devours a cooked ‘breakfast’ from his wife, Jane Horrocks’ Rose, before hitting the road on a night run.
The atmosphere is tense. Rose, who talks continuously to allay her fears, seems ill at ease, terrified of leaving her grotty flat, scared of visitors and yet lonely.
The arrival of unexpected guests throws Rose’s world into disarray.
It’s followed by the equally mystifying but very funny sketch, Victoria Station, a two-hander between cab driver 274 (a splendidly vague Graves) and his dispatcher, an increasingly exasperated Colin McFarlane.
274 is asked to go to Victoria Station yet he appears to have no idea what or where that is. He’s not even sure where he’s parked. Goodness knows how he passed The Knowledge.
The dispatcher becomes ever more irate, threatening all sorts in a bid to get 274 on the move. Worse, there’s a woman in the back of his cab who may be asleep or could even be dead….
Five finishes with another breakdown in communication. Family Voices sees a son leave home for the first time and his parents feel estranged. Each writes to each other but are the letters ever sent? It’s a familiar theme for those of us who have packed our kids off to uni or the big outside world.
Outstanding performances from the entire ensemble but with terrific turns from Graves, McFarlane and Horrocks in Five and Cook, Davis and Kingsley stealing Six.
Pinter Five and Pinter Six continue at the Harold Pinter Theatre until January 26.
Pinter at the Pinter
A good time is guaranteed with Party Time and Celebration, a standout Pinter Six and a disturbing Pinter Five, in the strong Pinter at the Pinter season.