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.
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