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

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The Independent Culture

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).