Theatre Review: Old Times - Memory plays tricks, and so does casting

In a first-rate revival at the theatre dedicated to him, Harold Pinter's characters are not what they seem

They said it was a gimmick, but that isn't true. Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams are swapping roles, from one night to the next, in Ian Rickson's staging of Old Times at London's Harold Pinter Theatre. As some cynics have observed, this sounds like a canny ruse to encourage twofold box-office bookings. In fact, this is a superb, cleverly apt production and if you go to see it twice – to witness both casting configurations – Pinter's slippery script becomes even more richly intriguing.

In this darkening three-hander, Deeley (a documentary-maker played by Rufus Sewell) and his wife, Kate (Scott Thomas on my first viewing), are waiting in their coastal home for a visit from her erstwhile friend, Anna. Elegantly curled on a settee, in blood-red velvet slacks – with a remote look, as if in a world of her own – Scott Thomas says she has not seen Anna for 20 years. Sewell's initially smirking Deeley learns that the duo, as young women, shared digs in west London, and Anna was prone to steal the other's underwear.

When Anna shows up (Williams, lithe in turquoise and so wraith-thin she almost disappears sideways on), the trio's reminiscences become increasingly tense, with riptides of sexual attraction coursing under the surface, brooding hostilities and power games. The memories recounted, moreover, become disconcertingly unreliable. Anna declares she was present at the film house where Deeley romantically recalls first meeting Kate. He, in turn, claims to have previously picked up Anna in a seedy pub and freely gazed up her skirt at a party.

Facts and confabulations become disturbingly hard to disentangle. Is Sewell, skulking in the shadows when the two women start enacting the past, disempowered or dreaming up erotically twisted fantasies-within-fantasies? Ultimately, he no longer seems sure which woman he met when, and this production is even more mind-bending when you view it again, with Williams as Kate and Scott Thomas as Anna. They switch their hair colour but only some of their clothes, playing some exchanges fractionally differently, some startlingly so. Actually, I suspect seeing this Old Times multiple times could become an obsession.

In Simon Stephens's fledgling play Port, from 2002 – now unwisely given an NT production in the Lyttelton Theatre that exposes its schematic weaknesses – Racheal (skinny, chatty Kate O'Flynn) can't go five minutes without exclaiming that life in Stockport is "doing her head in" or completely "mental". It is very obviously tough for her growing up through the 1990s in this Northern town, a brutalist concrete nowheresville as designed by Lizzie Clachan. Dad's a volatile alcoholic. Mum leaves. Grandad dies. Gran is mean. Kid brother Billy (pasty-faced Mike Noble with pudding-bowl haircut) is delinquent, and so on.

Racheal regrettably fails to stick with her nice boyfriend, Danny (Calum Callaghan), instead marrying a jealous psycho like her father (Jack Deam, doubling as parent and husband). But happy endings are, of course, still possible. Racheal determines to get away, go to college. Billy is, simultaneously, trying to reform. Revisting a spot previously associated with bleak memories, the reconciled siblings watch the sun rise. Yes, cue a literal new dawn and a beaming smile on Racheal's face.

For sure there are engrossing, moments in Port, and particularly touching ones between O'Flynn and Callaghan. We'll surely see more of these young actors, and of Noble. Even so, Stephens has written far better, less predictable plays since this one, and Marianne Elliott's disappointing revival too often, and too obtrusively, highlights the characters' mood swings from sweet to sour, loving to retracting.

Port also offers spectacular scene changes, concealed sets hydraulically emerging from below stage. However, technically cursed Lyttelton press nights are becoming a tradition, and we were nearly stuck in Stockport for ever as Racheal's car rolled into view for the final scene and trundled into a wall.

Headmaster Eddie Loopis can't quite bring himself to oust Rowan Atkinson's St John Quartermaine, in Simon Gray's slightly sad staff-room comedy, Quartermaine's Terms (Wyndham's Theatre, London), set in a 1960s Cambridge language school. Directed by Richard Eyre, Atkinson's Quartermaine has almost become a fading part of the furniture, ensconced in a leather armchair as terms come and go. He's a lame teacher and peculiarly dull, lonely bachelor, with a vacant expression and the memory of a goldfish, but also an obliging, shyly chummy manner which comforts his colleagues as their private lives and professional aspirations go through rocky patches.

In this ensemble piece, Malcolm Sinclair intones as the mildly pedantic Eddie, and Will Keen is the nerdy, exasperated part-timer Derek. Conleth Hill is pricelessly funny – and seriously pained – as plump Henry, who fancies he's suave, almost high-kicking with one brogue as he crosses his legs. Atkinson is less impressive, with a limited repertoire of strained froggy grins and flapping hands. His solo, star-status bow at the curtain call is undeserved. Gray's relatively lightweight play, with prolix monologues, is a shadow of his old friend Pinter's masterpiece, a few blocks away. Still, enjoyable enough.

'Old Times' (0844 871 7622) to 6 Apr; 'Port' (020-7452 3000) to 24 Mar; 'Quartermaine's Terms' (0844 482 5120) to 13 Apr

Critic's choice

Gina McKee and Anna Maxwell Martin are friends who first bond at university in the 1980s, in Amelia Bullmore's well-constructed tragicomedy Di and Viv and Rose, at London's Hampstead Theatre (to 23 Feb). Patrick Barlow's blissfully funny adaptation of the Hitchcock classic The 39 Steps, currently playing in 26 countries and a long-running West End hit, is at last going on the road in the UK. The tour kicks off at Swindon's Wyvern Theatre (Mon to Sat).

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all