Pinter 4: Moonlight / Night School – Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Writer: Harold Pinter

Directors: Lyndsey Turner and Ed Stambollouian

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

After three successful collections, Jamie Lloyd hands over the directorial reigns for the fourth outing of Pinter at the Pinter with mixed results. Lyndsey Turner directs the 1993 70-minute piece Moonlight while Ed Stambollouian takes charge of the latest revival of 1979’s Night School, which together give Pinter 4 a domestic focus looking at dysfunctional family life and its consequences.

Of all the shorts presented so far across many hours of performance, Moonlight is the least satisfactory. While Lloyd’s season has brought clarity to Pinter’s work allowing the viewer to understand and enjoy his approach, there is something frustratingly unknowable and ambiguous about Moonlight. Although its themes of father-son relationships, memory and fear of death are clear enough, something keeps the audience on the outside.

As Andy lays apparently dying, he revisits the past with his wife Bel while awaiting the arrival of his sons Jake and Fred and daughter Bridget. But none of them are coming. As hints of Andy’s irascible nature and memories of his former social and sexual power return to him, his sons consider the effect of their father, while Bridget seems in another world entirely.

Robert Glenister is excellent as Andy, projecting images of the man he once was, angry, forthright and entitled but scared of the unknowability of what’s to come and eager to see his children one last time. Al Weaver’s Jake and Dwane Walcott’s Fred predominantly play-act as other people, possibly mocking their father’s former life as they try to come to terms with his death, leaving a question about timelines between the two settings which is never resolved.

Turner’s approach is also the most conventional so far, a confined box containing a traditionally shabby bedroom decked out entirely realistically by designer Soutra Gilmour, with additional locations either layered over the top or staged in front. The shifts of tone are effective, adding an eerie quality to Bridget’s monologues that are given a visual link to Red Riding Hood, as well as the hyper-real interjections from seductive Maria (Janie Dee) and friend Ralph (Peter Polycarpou), but how this all hangs together is less obvious, and given the verve of the other pieces, a tad disappointing.

By contrast, Night School is an absolute delight, a 50-minute play that is a joy from start to finish. Directed by Stambollouian, the story of Walter returning from prison to find his aunts have rented his room to schoolteacher Sally, is presented in a heightened comic tone that is just exaggerated enough to draw attention to the foibles of the characters while still making the story credibly engaging.

In an inspired twist, Stambollouian has added a drummer (Abbie Finn) to control the rhythm of the piece, adding occasional beats in moments of extreme tension or change, as well as providing the music for the scene changes. Crucially it draws out Pinter’s interest in the collision of different worlds which drives Night School as the familiar and respectable working-class boarding house meets the seedy nightclub scene linked by the enigmatic and controlled Sally.

Jessica Barden has a strange dominance as the mysterious schoolteacher, permanently calm, unruffled and unemotional, her presence and absence equally create a tension for the other characters that drives the story. Having Barden observe scenes from the back nicely emphasises the effect Sally creates and gives her a watchful and controlling quality that adds to her mystery.

Weaver well conveys the disconcerting effect that Sally has on Walter, arousing first his suspicion and then his passion with a very carefully styled scene in which the two circle one another in the room that belongs to them both. Dee and Brid Brennan are wonderful as maiden aunts Milly and Annie relishing Pinter’s almost poetic appreciation for domestic detail with talk of cakes, coverlets and dusting revealing two slightly nosy women with a small-world approach, while Glenister exudes plenty of gruff masculinity as their landlord Solto who takes the audience out into the squalid nightclub to learn the truth about Sally.

Pinter 4 is a mixed evening, enjoyable and full of accomplished performances but with a tougher and slightly more impenetrable proposition in the first half that may frighten people away in the interval. But stay for the second half because Night School really is one of the highlights of the season so far, proving that taking the right approach makes Pinter’s work seem fresh and endlessly inventive.

Runs Until 8 December 2018 | Image: Marc Brenner

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One Comment

  1. I agree about Moonlight. I’ve read it a few times and couldn’t work out what was meant to be interesting about it. Often a good performance can offer some guidance but this (the first time, to the best of my knowledge, that I’ve seen it on stage or screen) didn’t – and I don’t think it’s the fault of the director or cast. With a writer who trades on enigma and inscrutability it’s risky to say so but: maybe it’s just not very good. The reliance on schoolyard humour – tickle your arse with a feather, how high is a Chinaman, that sort of thing – is not an encouraging sign. These gags are never completed (if you don’t remember them from your schoolyard, google can probably help), suggesting the author is playing to the audience’s vanity by inviting them in on a secret joke.

    “Bridget seems in another world entirely”

    Bridget IS in another world entirely – and this is where the production (like so many in this series) suffers by discarding Pinter’s directions. There are, according to the author, three main areas “1. Andy’s bedroom – well furnished 2. Fred’s bedroom – shabby (these rooms are in different locations). 3. An area in which Bridget appears, through which Andy moves at night and where Jake, Fred and Bridget play their scene.

    The above is not at all clear in this production where Jake and Fred seem to be in Andy’s room – even lying on his bed while he’s still in it. The character of Bridget is a confusing one in the script. In the list of characters Jake is 28, Fred is 27 and Bridget is 16; but in the flashback scene the respective ages are 18, 17 and 14. The only way I can make sense of this is if Bridget died at 16 and it’s the memory/ghost of her that appears in the play.

    “By contrast, Night School is an absolute delight”

    I my opinion it’s a much superior play but, again, suffers here from the decision to overlay scenes that, in the script, take place in distinct locations. The decision to open with cavorting in a night club is also disappointing as it pre-empts the revelation about Sally’s ‘night school’ activities. Unlike you, I don’t think the drumming added anything of value. I thought the performances were pretty good – Janie Dee excelling in both pieces – except that I found Jessica Barden rather unmagnetic ( a matter of taste, of course, but I wish I could find a film of Vivien Merchant or Prunella Scales as Sally). By Pinter’s standards this is a fairly straightforward narrative and, as such, would work better, in my opinion, if the production put its stamp on it while respecting the written staging rather than messing about with it. There’s surely plenty of scope for that eg, you wouldn’t need to make fundamental changes to update the setting.

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