Pinter's home from home

Rating: 4

Pinter at the Pinter

by Ian Shuttleworth

Before he became established as a generally hot directorial property, Jamie Lloyd showed two surprisingly disparate areas of expertise: musicals and Harold Pinter. Now he is helming a six-month rep season of all Pinter’s one-act plays (19 of them, in seven packages) at the theatre which has since 2011 borne the playwright’s name, and he has enrolled everyone from Michael Gambon to Danny Dyer.

The crashing title, Pinter at the Pinter, is far and away the least successful thing about this venture. Let’s take Pinter Two first, not least because Lloyd directed this same double-bill – The Lover (1962) and The Collection (1961) 10 years ago at this very address. I don’t remember the sexual and emotional power games of The Lover being given quite such a bright, brittle treatment in 2008: it feels a little like a wrapping of coloured, old-fashioned cellophane that crackles loudly but tears easily.

Nevertheless, John Macmillan and Hayley Squires still suggest beneath their parody-sitcom mannerisms that every single line is a gambit. They return with Russell Tovey and David Suchet in The Collection, which feels like a hybrid of The Homecoming and No Man’s Land. Lloyd tries to suggest that real power lies with Squires’ character as she withholds the truth about a sexual encounter while the men peddle imagined versions of it, but I’m not convinced.

Pinter One features five plays, a couple of poems and another brace of sketches. ashes to ashes stands alone after the interval, and I’m not sure director Lia Williams has found a useful way through its labyrinth of memories and delusions.

Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu give skilled performances as a couple who might be lovers, patient and therapist or abductor and victim, but O’Flynn’s singsong, dissociated tone makes everything questionable from the start.

In the first half, One For the Road is generally reckoned the masterpiece of Pinter’s later, fiercely political plays, and Antony Sher makes a smoothly menacing interrogator.

For my money, though, mountain language is more powerful, although more directly brutal. Jonjo O’Neill is loathsome (and I mean that as praise) as an oppressive sergeant abusing ethnic prisoners. Elsewhere he crops up as the voice of reason to a thick-as-pigswill president in newly discovered sketch The Pres and an Officer (Jon Culshaw plays the Pres as Trump, which is fun but unnecessary); a culture minister who believes heritage begins in the torture chamber and a state thug who can’t help dancing on tippy-toes, he enjoys his work so much in The New World Order. Each programme runs for only a few weeks, but the indications are that this season will be worth catching at any time.

Until 23 February at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, SW1: 0844-871 7622,