For six months now, this season of often little-known and sometimes never-before-seen Pinter shorts, curated by the director Jamie Lloyd, has been trundling along with mixed results. It is apparently based on a false premise: that every play, sketch and poem written by the Nobel laureate is worth reviving. Why false? Because the irony in some of the comedy sketches is dated and leaden, and the politics in the later works have the heavy-handedness of student agitprop. Then there is Pinter’s chauvinism, which would be intolerable were it not for the contempt with which he views male behaviour.
Yet a more holistic view of the star-studded season reveals genuinely fascinating insights into Pinter’s preoccupations and themes. His first play, The Room (1957), has many of the elements – the uninvited guest and the threat of male violence – seen in the masterpieces that followed. Both ingredients feature in the pair of playlets presented as Pinter Seven, the section that marks the season’s culmination. And far from being dated, these comedies of menace show how ahead of his time Pinter could be.
The first is the two-hander, A Slight Ache (1958), the staging of which gives a knowing nod to the fact it was written for radio. Game of Thrones regular Gemma Whelan and John Heffernan – a shoo-in for roles that require a certain lanky, English diffidence – play the roles of Flora and Edward while sitting in a sound studio. They are accompanied by foley sound props, and an “On Air” sign above glows red. Every syllable they utter screams upper class.
It is early summer and the couple is breakfasting in their county garden. A wasp intrudes. Killing it reveals a callous undertow to the pair’s polite, stilted, English discourse. But it is when the conversation turns to the subject of a mute match-seller who has set up stall outside their garden gate that the work morphs into gothic horror.
It would be easy to describe the piece as the warm-up to The Dumb Waiter (1957), the evening’s other two-hander, not least because it is performed by more famous actors, Sherlock star Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer, best known in Britain for TV soap opera and fast remoulding himself as an actor with genuine heft. Yet in many ways the playlets are equal in dramatic force and tension, which may say al lot for Lloyd's direction.
Dyer and Freeman play two hitman who wait for instructions in the basement of a large, derelict house, though Jon Clark’s eerie design looks more like the bowls of some government department. The work is a comprised of one taught act during which Freeman’s nervous Ben confesses to feeling uneasy about the mess their previous murder made. Dyer, meanwhile, is all suppressed aggression. He even reads his newspaper with a latent violence as the impression grows his Ben knows more about the next victim than he is letting on.
Comedy is supplied in the form of surreal instructions dropped down a dumb waiter shaft like mini bombs. The information comes in the bewildering form of restaurant food orders, as if our professional murderers were in fact chefs. This sends them into a whirlwind of anxiety as they attempt to interpret the meaning of the messages, and even fulfil the orders.
However, the significance of the play lies in the small talk that passes between the duo as they wait for their victim. But for their London accents, much of their dialogue could easily have been lifted from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. All of which reveals a Pinter who was at least 40 years ahead of his time.