First Night: Pinter's People, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London

Crude clowning and mugging fail to make Pinter funny
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The Independent Culture

There's a story (possibly apocryphal) that when Harold Pinter was lobbying to have the Comedy Theatre renamed the Pinter Theatre, Tom Stoppard's response was to ask: "Have you thought of changing your name to Harold Comedy?"

It's a rib-tickling anecdote because Pinter is not exactly a byword in the public mind for the ability to see the funny side of himself. On the other hand, he can be a very funny writer indeed. Bill Bailey and his team of comic performers are bent on highlighting this in Pinter's People. The show comprises sketches and monologues ranging from pieces he composed in the late Fifties for theatrical revues (for example, The Black and White and Request Stop), through the short, sharp, politicised playlets that he wrote in the Eighties and Nineties (such as Precisely and New World Order) to a sketch satirising mobile phone conversations that was, I think, performed on Newsnight, in 2006.

But, from the moment Bill Bailey walked on and instructed us not to feel inhibited about showing our enjoyment in this "up-and-coming writer Harold Pinter", I had the sinking sense the enterprise was doomed. This is not an enjoyable evening and indeed there are sequences where it is barely endurable, but it is an instructive one. It proves that you don't make Pinter funny by failing to trust the words and engaging instead in a lot of desperate mugging. In the hands of experienced stage actors, such as Sheila Hancock and Frances de la Tour, who played it in a revue at the Lyric Hammersmith 10 years ago, a sketch such as The Black and White - in which two elderly female vagrants in an all-night milk bar fend off loneliness by nattering inconsequentially about bus routes - is a hilarious example of Pinter's acute ear for the comic rhythms of banality and it audibly anticipates the chit-chat of Pete and Dud.

But here Geraldine McNulty and Sally Phillips (who turns one of the women into an Italian) make a pig's ear of the timing, as do Bill Bailey and Kevin Eldon in the wonderfully observed vignette Last to Go, where a newspaper seller and a coffee stallholder spin out an aimless conversation which reveals that neither has anything to communicate.

The performers opt for crude clowning instead of finding the truth of the situation from which the comedy, the poetry and the pathos spring. Directed with inexplicable incompetence by Sean Foley the evening misjudges just about everything. In its crass, strenuous jokiness, it will give the false impression that Pinter's People are lousy company.