Pinter Five: The Room / Victoria Station / Family Voices – Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Writer: Harold Pinter

Director: Patrick Marber

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

We may expect works by Harold Pinter to be dark, comedic and enigmatic and this collection of short plays, the fifth in Jamie Lloyd’s ambitious Pinter at the Pinter season, delivers to varying degrees in all those respects. However, there is a more specific unifying theme here, that of human disconnection and loneliness.

The Room is Pinter’s first play, written in 1957, and the writer’s depiction of London working-class life at that time is indeed grim. The setting is a bed-sitting room in an old house that is freezing cold in the basement and progressively gets damper as it rises. Outside on the deserted streets, it is a bleak Winter afternoon. The room realised starkly in Soutra Gilmour’s design and Richard Howell’s lighting, is occupied by a married couple,  Rose and Bert.

Jane Horrocks is quietly affecting as Rose. Her appearance, in dull housecoat and turban, could be modelled on Hilda Ogden and her Lancashire accent tells us that she does not really belong here. She chatters incessantly while Bert says nothing, but Rupert Graves’ performance suggests that his silence could be a controlling mechanism. Writing in an era when psychological domestic abuse would have been barely acknowledged, Pinter shows remarkable insight.

The characters have no back stories and they are given no lives outside a room where we sense hidden menace in all corners. The writer’s skill lies in not pinpointing any exact threat until the very end. Could the threat come from Nicholas Woodeson’s sinister landlord, or from a young couple (Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi) looking for a room (perhaps this same room) to rent? Maybe a blind stranger (Colin McFarlane) is bringing something worse than just a message for Rose. The denouement is shocking.

Victoria Station could have been written when Pinter was stuck in traffic, sitting in the back of a minicab and listening to anonymous disembodied voices floating across the airwaves. The 10-minute play is little more than a comedy sketch, first performed on radio in 1982, but the visual image here of two men, both in small boxes, separated by the width of the stage, reinforces a sense of their isolation. McFarlane is the conscientious controller frustrated in his attempts to have a sensible conversation with Graves’ gormless driver. A lucrative fare awaits at Victoria Station, but, before the arrival of Sat Nav, the driver has no idea where the station is. Pinter’s take on distant communications in the days of radio is wryly amusing and leaves us wondering what he might have made of social media.

Family Voices (1981), also written for radio, explores the paradox of family members being inextricably bound together and irresistibly torn apart. Thallon plays a young man who is alone and talking into thin air to the parents from whom he is estranged. He shares the inconsequential trivia of his daily life with them, and the actor, moving from calm confidence to frenzied anguish shows us the desperation of someone who is crying out for help and hearing no response. Horrocks plays the now widowed mother, also alone and talking to her absent son The vacant expression on her face shows reciprocated pain and abandonment. Graves appears briefly as the dead father/husband, but, essentially, this is a profoundly moving two-hander. When mother and son come within touching distance of each other on stage, the chasm between them is at its most apparent and it is heartbreaking.

Director Patrick Marber’s production is meticulously detailed, carefully paced and faultlessly performed. Seen together, these three studies in urban solitude complement each other and leave a lasting impression that is deeply unsettling.

Runs until 26 January 2019 | Image: Marc Branner

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Deeply unsettling

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One Comment

  1. “Her appearance, in dull housecoat and turban, could be modelled on Hilda Ogden ”

    So it wasn’t just me who saw a similarity. That’s a relief!

    I found this set the most satisfying of the five we’ve seen so far – probably because Marber’s direction seemed to serve the plays whereas too many of the others seemed to see the plays as mere material for the use of the director. Oh, and Victoria Station is, imo, by far the funniest of the sketches in the series to date.

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