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.
Bill Bailey and his team of comic performers are bent on highlighting this in Pinter's People, a show comprised of sketches and monologues ranging from the pieces he composed in the late Fifties for theatrical revues and TV (for example, The Black and White and Request Stop), through the short politicised playlets (such as Precisely and New World Order) that he wrote in the Eighties and Nineties, to a sketch satirising mobile phone conversations staged on Newsnight in 2006.
From the moment that Bailey walked on and matily instructed us not to feel inhibited about showing our enjoyment in the work of this "up-and-coming writer Harold Pinter" I had the sense that the enterprise was doomed. This is not an enjoyable evening, by any stretch of the imagination, and indeed there are sequences where it is barely endurable, but it is an instructive one. It proves that you disastrously ill-serve Pinter's comedy if you fail to trust the words and engage 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 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 about bus routes - is a hilarious and touching example of Pinter's acute ear for the comic rhythms of banality.
But here Geraldine McNulty and Sally Phillips make a pig's ear of the timing, as do Bailey and Kevin Eldon in the wonderfully observed vignette Last to Go where a newspaper seller and a coffee stall holder spin out an aimless conversation because neither wants to be the last to go home.
Directed with inexplicable incompetence by Sean Foley (one half of The Right Size duo), the evening misjudges just about everything (tone, arrangement, pacing - you name it). In its crass, strenuous jokiness, it will give newcomers the false impression that Pinter's people are lousy company.
To 23 February (08704 000 626); a version of this review has already apppeared in some editions of the paperReuse content