The Lover & The Collection, Comedy Theatre, London

4.00

Double shot of vintage Pinter

There was talk at one time of renaming the Comedy Theatre in honour of Harold Pinter. It would have been a fitting gesture, given that the playwright's association with this venue stretches from A Night Out, which was presented as part of a triple bill in 1961, to his production of Simon Gray's play The Old Masters, in 2004. The plan, however, was somehow thwarted, and Tom Stoppard is said to have told Pinter that he could always change his name to Harold Comedy.

The cream of that (perhaps apocryphal) jest is the slight air of lèse-majesté towards a writer whose bouts of righteous fury, though directed towards well-chosen targets, suggest that he has ceased to see the funny side of himself.

Now, as a potent reminder of the dark vigour of Pinter's sense of humour and taste for unnerving flights of absurdity, Jamie Lloyd directs a highly stimulating and expertly acted revival of two one-act plays, The Lover and The Collection, both first seen on television in, respectively, 1963 and 1961. Watching them, I was struck by how early Pinter had given hints of a preoccupation that was to bloom fully in Betrayal (1978) – namely, the erotic tension between two men in a love-triangle for a woman who proves to be less important to them than their own relationship.

Soutra Gilmour's set for The Collection tries gamely to superimpose three locations (in the manner of Alan Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves) but the effect is jumbled and it alerts you to the fact that theatre was not the original medium for this drama. The acting, though, is pristine in its witty, unsettling suggestiveness, and in the skill with which it keeps pace with the script's sudden lunges into laugh-aloud loopiness.

Handsome, 25-year-old Charlie Cox, taking a break on home turf from his conquest of Hollywood, makes a strong, slyly comic impression as Bill, the young bisexual fashion designer who, at the same time as being the bored catamite of Timothy West's hilariously peeved and querulous Harry, is confronted by the would-be intimidating James (a spot-on Richard Coyle) accusing him of having had a one-night stand with his wife Stella (Gina McKee) while on a business trip to Leeds.

There are many incidental comic pleasures in the play. When the gay couple are plagued by bells one Sunday morning, Bill remarks that they seem to have left their mark on Harry, and West's timing is so good that he can make the gritted-teeth rejoinder, "They haven't helped", explosively funny.

We never learn the truth about what went on in Leeds. Instead, one of the main threads in the drama is the way that the aggrieved husband finds himself magnetised by bisexual Bill, who at one point lies sandwiched between the bestriding legs of his smitten adversary. It is cold comfort for the wife (and blackly amusing) that she is thanked by her spouse for accidentally opening up a whole new world for him with an opera-loving man he can respect.

A similar theme is pursued in The Lover, in which Richard Coyle and Gina McKee play a married couple who have devised a weird form of liberating infidelity. In the afternoons, Richard, the husband, returns from the office posing as the eponymous bit-on-the-side and ready for some raunchy role-play that climaxes with nookie under the tea-table.

For my taste, the actors here play the initial marital scenes too much as if everything in this pair's life took place between cod inverted commas. But they trace beautifully the developments in an increasingly disturbed extracurricular relationship. The telling fact is that it's the husband who winds up unable to handle the implications of the fantasy. Even though he is himself the "other man", he can't stand the competition. The wife is made of suppler stuff and hits on an ingenious way of luring him back into the fold of their make-believe world. Strongly recommended.

To 3 May (0870 060 6637)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea