“Pinter’s People” – Review

This was my response to “Pinter’s People”,
as performed at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, 2007 

What an opportunity…
                                                  ….missed!

As a lifelong fan of Pinter, and about to direct my fourth production of one of his plays – The Dwarfs (after Betrayal, The Caretaker and The Homecoming), I was keen to see Pinter’s People at the Haymarket last Saturday.  Especially as it was reputed to be bringing the humour of Pinter’s brilliant dialogue to life.  So what happened?

Bill Bailey was fine; he played it straight: wry, and with understanding. I had high enough hopes of Sally Phillips, with her talent for the ‘quirky’ gleaming out of Smack the Pony, and Green Wing, not to mention Clare in the Community.  So why the histrionics?

For a key example: the two women in The Black and White are archetypal bag ladies, obsessed with the minutiae of their uneventful lives, their conversation mutually sustaining, spiced up with one of Pinter’s tellingly observed favorites: the bus route interchange –  those discussions of bus numbers, beloved of Londoners born and bred.

What call, then, for Ms Phillips to adopt a heavy Eastern European accent, a lumbering, coarse persona, and an even heavier-handed abuse of the classic, oh so subtle mechanism of the pause? Pauses in Pinter are pauses for thought, for the character to register (and let us register) mis-matches, confusions or anomalies, before they plug on, apparently regardless.  Or they are there to give wind of hidden meanings, or menace.  There was no need to ‘jazz up’ the dialogue, to make it funny.  It is funny, in and of itself.  The whole tapestry needs to be non-committal and low key.  This wasn’t.

In That’s All, her chance to relish the low-toned, drawn-out quality of those overlapping utterance-affirming refrains of ‘Ye-es’, and ‘No, I kno-ow’, characteristic of women of a certain age engaged in inconsequential chat, was blown.  Instead we had a disconcerting series of brash ripostes, with no apparent connection either to text or character.

Kevin Eldon seemed possessed of an equivalent urge to overact. In Trouble in the Works the monopaced, monopitched  delivery of his blustering manager, Fibbs,  was in a pantomime idiom completely at odds with the measured interpretation of Bill Bailey’s Wills.  It quickly jarred on the ear, and unfortunately set the tone for Eldon’s subsequent performances, none of which strayed in the direction of subtlety.  Later, in Victoria Station, he adopted an artificially sterile, characterless monotone, taking away from Bailey’s performance, and again the demon ‘pause protractor’ was wilfully at work – and why?  Nearly all the real comedy of relationship was lost in the process.  As it was in the classic Last to Go, rendered pointlessly blank, rather than a deliciously observed comment on the typically absurd nature of insubstantial exchanges.  What a waste!

Whose fault was this? Surely not Bill Bailey, whose dream it was?  Was it in the choice of the other actors?  Was it that they each insisted on their own idiosyncratic interpretation, often flying in the face of the words themselves?  Or was it all down to the director, Sean Foley?  Whatever the reasons, surely he should have had the last, if not the first word?

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