It is a surprising twist for Harold Pinter, or so it might seem at first glance. His plays are most famous for their brooding menace. Yet even as he has become awesomely august – winning the Nobel Prize – the idea has spread that he is a hoot.
I'm not complaining. Last year, Bill Bailey's Haymarket Theatre Royal production, Pinter's People, lacked subtlety but drew renewed attention to the writer's seminal comic sketches, going back to 1959. Now in the West End we have a double bill of Pinter plays, including The Lover (from 1963) in which a husband is entangled in his spouse's adulterous affair. I've not seen this sexually kinky chamber piece played as satirically as here, directed by fast-rising newcomer Jamie Lloyd, with Gina McKee as the housewife and Richard Coyle playing Max, her bit of rough on the side.
You might feel, at first, that Lloyd is pushing the comedy, producing Pinter Lite, as Coyle stands in his bomber jacket striking a risibly macho pose, legs splayed like a cowboy expecting a horse. Meanwhile, McKee crawls across the carpet in her killer stilettos with am-dram awkwardness, making her S&M seductress act look the painfully laughable cliché it is.
Actually, presenting The Lover as a part-send-up of Sixties soft porn is apt. After all, Pinter slips in a bit part for a leering milkman, surely tongue-in-cheek. Crucially, Lloyd's leading actors are so deft that the mood can turn on a sixpence, and it darkens sharply.
As for the narrative twists, Pinter explores lovers' multilayered fantasies with a Pirandellian ingenuity which is psychologically enthralling. The play is a maze of warped mirrors which leads you, in the end, to question whether anything was for real in the first place.
A powerful vortex of doubt is also generated in the comparable four-hander, The Collection (1961), where Coyle's James stalks Charlie Cox's sardonic Bill, feverishly claiming that the young fashion designer has had a one-night stand in a conference hotel with his wife. With strong support from Timothy West, Cox and Coyle's homoerotic power games have the vicious competitiveness of emotionally arrested schoolboys. Worth catching.
In Happy Now?, Olivia Williams's Kitty is also tempted to have an extramarital fling in a conference hotel. Lucinda Coxon's new tragi-comedy about fraying marriages and mid-life crises instantly grabs you with its unsettling and extremely droll first scene. Stanley Townsend's Michael is shamelessly louche. He's like Satan in a suit, with a casual kind of sheer gall that's curiously seductive.
Both Coxon's play and Thea Sharrock's production have laboured moments. At points it goes a bit sitcom too, with the best mate of Kitty's husband behaving badly and moving into the spare room. Nonetheless, Williams is exquisitely natural as the frazzled wife and mother, and this is a portrait of modern-day discontentment that gets under the skin.
Liverpool, as the European Capital of Culture, is offering an enticing rewrite of Chekhov, directed by Lindsay Posner. Co-authored by Diane Samuels and Tracy-Ann Oberman, Three Sisters on Hope Street is set in a household of Jewish émigrés in Liverpool, post-Second World War. So the soldiers from the nearby barracks are American GIs and the siblings dream of attaining happiness not in Moscow but either in New York or on a kibbutz in the new Promised Land. This brings a fresher urgency to the play's socialist dreams and barbed reverberations, given Palestine's troubles today. The script sometimes lacks Chekhov's light touch and only Daisy Lewis's monstrously bossy Debbie (Chekhov's Natasha) has a Liverpool accent. Still, there are fine performances from Philip Voss as the disillusioned old doctor, Nate, Anna Francolini as the stalwart eldest sister, lovelorn but uncomplaining, and Susan Sylvester as May (ie Masha) – bored, impetuously adulterous then harrowingly desperate.
Last but not least, the Rose in Kingston upon Thames is a wonder. Without National Lottery or Arts Council support, an enthused local authority and university – with Peter Hall as their figurehead – have managed to build this new 900-seat theatre as an artistic experiment, based on the ground plan of London's famous Elizabethan playhouse of the same name. The curved foyers are instantly pleasing, like a snug ship with steel staircases and wood floors. The roofed-in auditorium is horseshoe-shaped with a surprisingly wide and gently curving thrust stage. This has been set much lower in height than at the Globe, with groundlings in the pit to be seated on cushions. On a bad night, I imagine this could be awkward, if there's an empty gulf between the actors and first row of seats. And the place is clearly going to need decent funding to sustain successful programming.
However, it gets off to an admirable start with Peter Hall's touring Uncle Vanya. The set has a lovely simplicity, strewn with sun-bleached chairs, and Nicholas Le Prevost is tetchy and lovable, if not searingly frustrated in the title role.
'The Lover'/'The Collection' (0870- 040 0046) to 3 May; 'Happy Now?' (020-7452 3000) to 15 March; 'Three Sisters on Hope Street' (0151-708 0338) to 16 February and touring; 'Uncle Vanya' (0871- 230 1552) to 9 February and tourReuse content