It seems anyone who is anyone has signed up for Jamie Lloyd’s ambitious season of Harold Pinter plays at the appropriately named, Harold Pinter Theatre, in the West End.
Pinter at the Pinter launched on Thursday with a Pinter One matinee and Pinter Two evening performance, and these little one act gems, some no more than scenes, demonstrate the versatility and breadth of the playwright’s canon.
Pinterphile Lloyd directs One which starts with a loud explosion of tickertape and ended in stunned silence following a chilling performance by Antony Sher as a sadistic torturer.
The jury is split over whether Pinter One or Two is the best, depending on who you ask. They both have highlights, and some flaws, but are equally tantalising and meritorious in their own way.
In the dark, disturbing and deeply political Pinter One I was transfixed by Sher in the production’s main piece, One For The Road.
And Paapa Essiedu, impresses with his growing maturity. Here he plays a victim, beaten, tortured and crushed – although he also briefly unsettles as a henchman alongside the sardonic Jonjo O’Neill.
Pinter One plunges the audience into a dystopian nightmare where the state rules with an iron fist. There are echoes of Nazi Germany or 1970s Argentina, where ordinary citizens and intellectuals are rounded up, interned and tortured.
If Pinter was out to shock with his satire then he succeeds with all his trademark pauses, repetition and shock dialogue.
From the outset, O’Neill’s government minister talks about a totalitarian regime where public opinion is suppressed, no criticism is allowed, women are raped, children killed and opposition quashed.
The weakest segment for me was The Pres and An Officer, not because of Jon Culshaw’s superb rendition of Donald Trump, but by an unusually weak script which fails to deliver a killer last line – although the last line is a killer in its own right.
In One For The Road we meet a cheery Nicolas (Sher) who is quizzing a terrified father (Essiedu). Nicolas is jocular, chatty and clearly a psychopath (“I love death,” he beams) .
We meet the young son and the wife (Kate O’Flynn). She has been repeatedly raped and is shaking with fear. The psychological torture all three endure at the hands of this smiling monster is horrifying.
After the interval Ashes to Ashes, directed by Lia Williams, is even more unnerving as we drop in on a conversation between husband and wife (Essiedu and O’Flynn).
One minute she’s chatting about domestic trivia and the next about Nazi officers ripping babies from the arms of mothers.
Pinter can be baffling. I wondered if she was traumatised after suffering a miscarriage. Either way her husband is at a loss as to how to comfort and pacify her.
The evening performance of Pinter Two is much jollier with two comedies. It opens with The Lover from 1962 when we meet a young couple (John Macmillan and Hayley Squires) whose two year marriage is already crumbling.
The pair indulge in role play in a bid to rekindle their passion and it’s a hoot.
After Soutra Gilmour’s brutalist set, starkly lit by Jon Clark to highlight the paranoia, for Pinter One here she goes to town with a suburban magenta living room and G-Plan. Very stylised 1960s.
After the break there is the scintillating and ambiguous black comedy, The Collection, from 1961, with David Suchet in a splendid wig, playing the older man to Russell Tovey’s possibly bisexual toyboy.
Suchet is clearly having fun with the part, breaking out into Noël Coward theatrics when his diva-like Harry doesn’t get his own way.
Macmillan has arrived to confront Tovey’s Bill with an accusation that he had slept with his wife (Squires).
Pretty soon it’s like musical chairs as Bill, mostly in white vest and tight white underpants, enjoys playing with both the wife and husband.
But did the incident happen at all or did the wife invent the whole thing?
It is an evening of absurdist, typically Pintereque comedy which reflects very much the era they were written in.
If you’re seeing the pair as a double bill then the night ends on a high. Separately, you need to chose between the shocking, incendiary One and the robustly funny Two. I loved them both.
Pinter One and Two are playing in rep until October 20.
Pinter Three and Pinter Four, featuring Landscape / A Kind of Alaska / Monologue and Moonlight/ Night School, runs from October 25 – December 8.
They star Keith Allen, Tom Edden, Lee Evans, Tamsin Greig, Meera Syal, Penelope Wilton, Jussica Barden, Brid Brennan, Janie Dee, Abbie Finn, Robert Glenister, Isis Hainsworth, Peter Polycarpou, Dwane Walcott and Al Weaver.
Jamie Lloyd and his very starry company clearly love Pinter and this season is a rare opportunity to see his little known work.
But while those in the theatre industry (and us critics) are very excited about the project, which runs until the end of February, will the public feel the same?