Now past the halfway mark, Jamie Lloyd’s season of Pinter plays continues to astonish with each new installment. What’s impressive is the curation – the plays are grouped by subject matter, rather than chronology, showcasing the themes that Pinter revisited multiple times throughout his career as a playwright. Pinter Six is all about sharp satire of the upper class: unhappiness, coarse vulgarity and downright cruelty lying behind a outwardly civilised façade.
Party Time is set at an opulent dinner party, given for the rich by the rich. The guests swan about in smug self-superiority, uttering vacuous phrases of small talk. A civil war seems to be going on outside, but the only hint of unease comes when Dusty (Eleanor Matsura) interrupts to ask her husband Terry (John Simm) what has happened to her brother Jimmy. The atmosphere in the party changes; Terry tells at her to shut up or she’ll be ‘spanked’; the host of the party, Gavin (Phil Davis), makes a disapproving remark about ‘uncontrollable wives’. A set of giant doors at the back of the stage glow at intervals, as the riot outside continually threatens to break in and disrupt the insulated life of the dinner party. The finale, where Jimmy (Abraham Popoola) bursts through the doors dripping with blood, is a bit too heavy-handed for my liking, though it does get the point across. ‘The dark is in my mouth and I suck it… it’s the only thing I have.’ Outside the cushy world of the party, a hopeless blackness looms for the rest of society. It’s hard to pick a standout from the cast, who are all excellent. I particularly enjoyed Simm’s ability to deliver spine-chilling menace in a deceptively pleasant voice. Casting Matsura, who is half-Japanese, and Popoola, who is of Nigerian descent, as the only two who seem out of place in the cushy world of Party Time also lends – intentionally or otherwise – racial undertones to this staging.
The cast of nine remains the same for Celebration, this time a more intimate look at the emptiness of relationships. Like Party Time, its cheery title belies the bleak tone of the play. Two brothers, married to two sisters, are at ‘the most expensive restaurant in town’, ostensibly to celebrate the wedding anniversary of one of the couples, Lambert (Ron Cook) and Prue (Celia Imrie). It soon becomes clear that true affection is not to be found in any of the relationships on display. Husbands and wives undermine each other with snide remarks throughout dinner, with vulgarity and warped familial ties being the theme of the day. ‘All mothers want their sons to be fucked by themselves,’ Prue insists, while reminiscing about how her mother used to beat her father till there was blood on the sheets. Suki (Katherine Kingsley) and her husband Russell (Simm) are no better; Russell confesses to an affair with a secretary, only for Suki to regain the upper hand with her tales of when she was a ‘plump young secretary’ with her share of filing-cabinet liaisons. In the middle of these unhappy conversations, the restaurant waiter (Popoola) makes frequent ‘interjections’ about his grandfather, longing for a past of culture and tradition which is long gone.
Soutra Gilmour’s set and costume design are commendable for how both plays manage to disgust us equally in their overt, though very different, displays of opulence. Sleek black glamour for Party Time with its constant sense of threat, ritzy glitter for the (relatively) light-hearted Celebration.
I previously reviewed Pinter Four, a stunning collection of short sketches in which Pinter explored the unreliability of memory – as escapism, as bond. Here, too, recollection is subjective for Lambert and Suki. Their past relationship is such a precious memory to Lambert – “I fell in love once… and [she] loved me back” – that he uncharacteristically foots the bill for everyone, Suki and Russell included. Suki, on the other hand, believes he never loved anything more than her body. For all the casual cruelty in Celebration, it’s this repudiation of the one shred of genuine emotion in the play that hits the hardest. Celebration ends with the spotlight on the waiter, who is about to make ‘one last interjection’ – but what is it? Will it be a solution to the toxicity of these relationships, a way to reclaim genuine warmth? We will never know.
Despite being written 9 years apart, the two plays echo each other remarkably. Once again, Jamie Lloyd shows us how Pinter is still relevant today - more relevant than ever in today’s political climate, in fact, with its ever-growing divide between the haves and have-nots. The false veneer masking a far bleaker reality in these two plays also resonates with the false perfection of our online lives and social media, despite the loneliness and nihilism that seem to dog our generation. A thought-provoking pairing not to be missed.