Sunday night's celebration of Harold Pinter, who died last Christmas, was a unique occasion which did something none of the fulsome obituaries quite managed: it reminded you how much actors love performing his stuff, what wonderful material he gave them, and how his work defined, to a very great extent, the acting styles of the last century.
And what a range of talent on view, from Colin Firth reprising his definitive performance as the lobotomised Aston in The Caretaker and David Bradley bringing the house down with that play's hilarious speech about a tramp searching for a pair of shoes in a monastery in Luton, through to Eileen Atkins and Sheila Hancock as a pair of derelict old women discussing night buses in an early sketch that Hancock actually introduced in 1959.
This was like watching Peter Cook and Dudley Moore embalmed in their raincoats. The rhythm and London argot of Pinter's writing caught the new satire wave, continued the spare, clipped style of Noël Coward to some extent, and allowed the British modern actor to develop laconic, brutal, and mostly post-Christian investigations into the psychology of modern manners and relationships.
Jude Law partnered the lustrous Indira Varma in the double adultery confession from The Lover, and Michael Sheen and Janie Dee played the edgily tense encounter from Betrayal in which her affair with his best friend is first acknowledged; that was being watched by Jeremy Irons, who appeared in the film, and Henry Woolf, Pinter's oldest friend from schooldays, who arranged the love nest for Pinter and Joan Bakewell, the root of the 1978 play.
Irons wore a stunning pair of red shoes, Gina McKee a mauve dress, Penelope Wilton a much better black outfit than she has for Gertrude in Law's Hamlet, and the actors sat in a big V, expertly marshalled by director Ian Rickson, beautifully lit by Peter Mumford and joined movingly at the end by students from LAMDA reciting Pinter's Nobel Prize speech, as they did in the author's presence last October.
Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan crossed swords over a languorous McKee in Old Times, while Douglas Hodge and Samuel West brought Pinter's outstandingly evocative tributes to the actor-manager Anew McMaster and the cricketer Arthur Wellard to pulsating life. Kenneth Cranham did one of the great speeches from The Homecoming and Andy de la Tour got us delightfully lost in Bolsover Street from No Man's Land.
Lia Williams, Susan Wooldridge, Roger Lloyd Pack, Harry Burton, Henry Goodman and Lloyd Hutchinson all had their moments. The programme was brilliantly compiled to include a good selection of poems, too, including several written for Pinter's second wife, Antonia Fraser, and several angry ones, including "Cricket at Night", done by Irons with great steel.
Lovely stuff indeed: a special treat.