A double bill of plays by Harold Pinter is really too good to miss even though, some might say, there's been a lot of Pinter on lately, and there's more on its way - 'The Homecoming' opens at the Almeida in early February.
The two plays on offer here - 'The Lover' and 'The Collection' – were both written in the early 1960s and first produced as a double bill in 1973. Though they're not as well-known as the likes of 'The Birthday Party' or 'The Caretaker', they'll undoubtedly be appreciated by Pinter fans as well as those wanting to dip a little deeper into the writer's work. A further plus is that they're being presented at the Comedy Theatre which Pinter has been associated with for the past 50 years or so.
'The Lover' is about a middle class couple who live a secluded kind of life in the middle of somewhere or other. They might be comfortably off financially, but their sex life seems to be less satisfactory as the very first line of the play indicates: "Is your lover coming today" says husband Richard. "Yes", says his wife, Sarah. Shockingly liberal, you might say, even for the 'swinging 60s'. But, as you'd expect from a Pinter play, there's rather more to it. The fact is that the lover Richard refers to is, er, Richard. And the romantic afternoons Sarah spends with her lover are basically no more than a couple married for 10 years spicing-up their love life. That seems to be the picture, though as we get to know the couple better, we also learn more about Richard's insecurities.
'The Collection' is on the same sort of lines, though the sexual element here focuses on a homosexual relationship, bisexuality and jealousy. Bill is a young fashion designer who lives with his older partner, Harry. One day a strange man, Jimmy, phones at 4 am to speak to Bill. Then he comes round to Harry's house unannounced, helps himself to some vodka and a grape or two, and accuses Bill of having slept with his wife, Stella, in a hotel while on business in Leeds. Bill at first denies the accusations, but the matter is never clarified or resolved satisfactorily in spite of Stella's denial.
Charlie Cox makes his West End stage debut with a short appearance as the milkman in 'The Lover' and also plays the more substantial role of Bill in 'The Collection. With boy-next-door appeal and mischievous charm, Cox certainly has the necessary qualities in the good looks department to fulfill the demands of the role, but also brings the appropriate sense of someone flirting with danger and courting disaster.
Timothy West lends authority as the well-to-do Harry who understands and accepts his partner's foibles completely if grudgingly, describing him in rather unflattering terms as a 'slum slug' with a 'slum mind'. Even so, he's not prepared to accept the appearance of a potential rival and there's a humorous scene when a simmering West screws up the newspaper in a display of petulant irritation.
In Pinter's work, women often seem 'very stange' or peculiar to men, but are often characterised as being more adaptable and able to cope with the demands of life much better than their male counterparts. And that's how Gina McKee portrays both Sarah in 'The Lover' and Stella in 'The Collection'. She readily makes the transformation from middle-class housewife to sexual temptress in stark contrast to her husband who finds their role-playing uncomfortable.
Lying more or less under the surface (and sometimes appearing more blatantly) are the twin threats of danger and menace. I don't think they're quite so evident as in other Pinter plays, though one senses they are rarely totally absent. Soutra Gilmour picks up on this in the rather dark design for both pieces. This doesn't fit quite so easily with 'The Collection' which is supposed to be set in a posh house in Belgravia. Even so, Gilmour has managed to suggest the mood of the early 1960s when, though liberality was blossoming, there were still numerous skeletons still to pop out of their respective cupboards.
Both these plays stand the inevitable test of time pretty well. Though the themes they deal with might have shocked when first aired, they will be viewed as rather tame in comparison to some of the material we're regularly exposed to on TV or in films these days. However, there's more than enough in both pieces for twenty-first century audiences to appreciate and the similarity of the themes make them appropriate bedfellows for a double bill.
Neither of these plays rivals the likes of 'The Homecoming' in terms of comedy, but there are plenty of laughs along the way. More importantly, both cast and creative team have tried hard, and successfully, to be faithful to the spirit of Pinter's work and the mood of the 60s - well worth seeing on that score alone.
What the popular press had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "A highly stimulating and expertly acted revival of two one-act plays...There are many incidental comic pleasures in the play."" NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Harold Pinter has never offered us more illuminating, sexually-related pleasure than in these two exquisite one-acters." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "There is a lot of comedy here." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Taken as a theatrical evening, they don't satisfy, but merely seem like a couple of interesting hors d'oeuvres before a main dish that never arrives." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Two fascinating, funny, elusive one-acters."