Pinter Six: Party Time/Celebration – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter at the Pinter Six

As the annual party season draws to a close we are all exhausted from a least a month of Christmas drinks, official office parties and socialising with everyone we’ve ever met before the symbolic chasm beyond the 25 December. One last hurrah on New Year’s Eve to see out a year no one particular wants to remember will be replaced with diets, detoxes and a month at home to recover from the financial strain of the festive period. What better time then to consider all the things we really hate about forced social gatherings – the one-upmanship, the sniping couples and the self-congratulation all concealed under a thin veneer of social expectation and small-talk.

The penultimate Pinter at the Pinter collection is another superbly insightful double bill uniting Party Time from 1991 with Celebration from 2000. This is Pinter as a social commentator subtly examining the slightly falsified nature of the party set-up, suggesting much about the complex nature of human interaction and revealing character traits through conversations full of class, gender and political meanings. Presented to a now socially-jaded late December / early January audience these are two parties you’ll be glad to observe from the safety of your theatre seat.

Back at the helm after temporarily handing-over the directorial reins, you know instinctively that this is a Jamie Lloyd production as soon as the curtain rises. Gone are the gentler themes about love and loss, and instead we return to contrasting shades of darkness and light. Where Soutra Gilmour’s revolving cube has been used to give previous collections movement and verve, here both plays have a deliberate static quality, similarly presented front-on with the actors placed in a row facing the audience. How Lloyd uses this to create two dynamic gatherings that emphasise Pinter’s focus on the dangerous nonsense of social climbing is fascinating.

Opening with Party Time Lloyd and Gilmour create a vision more akin to a funeral than a twinkly upper middle-class get-together, but for good reason. Pinter’s story is all about the ways in which the accumulation of wealth depends on the exploitation of those in the lower social order and how vulgar the conversations about holidays and tennis clubs, a heartless display of status really are, suggesting an emptiness at the heart of these interactions. Here, while peacocking, the characters reveal a ruthless approach to protecting their own privilege and a refusal to see beyond the limits of their comfortable existence, a purposeful blindness about how their lifestyle is sustained.

The attention to detail here is very meaningful, and Gilmour’s party venue is a black room, with black chairs, with a set of double black doors at the rear centre through which the external world occasionally tries to break through. She dresses each character in a carefully chosen black outfit and shoes while even providing quite specific brunette wigs to a number of the actors to create a soulless and bleak community governed by a particular set of rules about conformity, which links nicely to the political themes and faceless governing elite of Pinter One.

Lloyd carefully places his actors in particular spots on the stage, the women seated on the outer edge to reinforce the male-dominated secret society idea that comes through strongly from the script, an ominous bunch ‘taking care’ of events beyond this room – a hint of revolution in which police cordons and traffic checks delay arrivals at the party –  and rapidly shutting down any reference to the events beyond. For the men of this elite set knowledge is power and the emphasis is squarely on ‘need to know’, so information is presented to the other characters and the viewer only where it serves the progress of the story, frequently without further context, for example when Dusty is abruptly told she cannot mention her missing brother.

To reiterate this idea of party and society as a form of constructed artifice, full of tacit rules and expectations, Lloyd shies away from a more traditional staging with conversations happening around the stage and instead seats all the actors in a single line, with the relevant combinations stepping forward to deliver their scenes before resuming their place in the frozen line-up. The effect of this is quite extraordinary, showing the multiple strands of conversation occurring in this room between semi-strangers, while cutting sharply between pockets of information to draw out their strange lack of reality. We’ve seen this in several of the earlier Pinter collections, the idea that this world exists slightly out of time with everything beyond the black doors, and, for some time, each interaction here also appears to be separated from the others, sets of lives happening in parallel in the same room but in their own vacuum.

The deconstructed staginess that Lloyd brings is cleverly utilised to underscore Pinter’s views on this type of party and its people supported by another fantastic ensemble cast. John Simm has such an natural feel for Pinter’s rhythm and after enjoyably dark performances in The Hothouse and The Homecoming, both for Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios, here his angry banker Terry is full of rage in which Simm draws out the brutality of the man who verbally berates his wife and hints at a joy in physical violence beyond this room while talking about his favourite health club.

Simm is supported by Eleanor Matsuura as Dusty, Terry’s wife who married-up and struggles to cast-off the thoughts of her own family and class while chafing under Terry’s rule, Phil Davis as party host Gavin inducted into this particular social circle through his appreciation of the health club, Celia Imrie as Dame Melissa whose scathing comments on the nearby town are so revelatory for the audience, Ron Cook and Katherine Kingsley as couple Douglas and Liz whose only connection seems to be their children, and the wonderful Tracy-Ann Oberman as widow Charlotte reunited with Gary Kemp’s Fred – all of them reasonably oblivious to anything but their own immediate circumstances.

Pinter uses the 35-minute Party Time to comment on the unsatisfactory nature of marriage and the rapid descent into indifference or outright disdain. These themes are even more prevalent in Celebration, essentially a sex-comedy set in a restaurant during a wedding anniversary dinner as two sets of tables (a foursome and a double) explore past lovers, jealousy and the failure of their current relationships. As with Party Time the tone suggests something amiss, but Pinter, in his final play, draws out the crass nature of his characters more overtly as the self-congratulation gives way to more dubious moral undercurrents.

Lloyd stages this 40-minute play almost as the inverse of the earlier production with a visual palette that confines black to the back of the stage and instead uses gold, white and silver to create a gaudy nouveau riche world of shiny fabrics and visible wealth – and note Gilmour replaces the brunette wigs with blonde for most of the women and their natural silver of the men. Seated at a banquet-style table facing the audience, couples Lambert and Julie are celebrating their anniversary separated by fellow twosome Matt and Prue who have joined them for the evening. At either end of the table at right angles to the audience, Russell and Suki form an entirely separate conversation, and Lloyd controls the traffic between the initially separate scenarios with lighting changes, freeze frame techniques and a subtle musical flurry.

This set-up allows Lloyd to place a physical distance between the sparring couples (with the exception of the relatively happy Matt and Prue who sit side-by-side) that emphasises the considerable emotional separation they are experiencing. At several points Ron Cook’s dislikeable Lambert either pretends not to know his wife or acts with notable disrespect towards her including mention of earlier sexual conquests. There is an evident vulgarity in the way Cook’s Lambert carries himself, flaunts his wealth and holds court at what should be a celebratory dinner, clearly indicating a self-made man who constantly betrays his more-lowly origins.

These notions filter through the group and while both Oberman’s Julie and Imrie’s Prue are expensively dressed, Gilmour’s choice of shiny ruched fabrics and piles of elaborately coiffured hair equally suggest money without taste, they drip with expense but their obvious flashiness implying, deep-down, a discomfort or surprise at their sudden fortune that they have been unable to cultivate. While the characters in Party Time oozed a classical elegance and comfortable entitlement that stifles any real feeling, here this brash group open-up their thoughts and feelings as easily as their wallets.

The theme of sexual jealousy comes from the other table as Kingsley’s Suki dines with partner Russell played by Simm. Here we discover a path for young women from secretary to boss’s wife behind the filing cabinets of the offices in which Suki once worked. As the two stories collide, Pinter comments on marriage, attraction and our inability to fully escape our own past – especially, for women, the stain of former lovers – as the characters endure an uncomfortably forced period of social interaction into which Lloyd allows only minimal movement, reflecting the confinement of the life they have built for themselves. All of this is interspersed with more wordly musings from the waiting staff (Abraham Popoola and Matsuura) and Kemp’s restaurant manager who subvert social expectations to some degree; the people with money have neither education nor class, while the people without have both.

Together, the one Act plays that comprise Pinter Six are a condemnation of the falsity of politeness and the extent to which excessive amounts of money allow groups to mask terrible and immoral behaviours. These brilliantly staged pieces are the shortest of the set to date and contain the least motion from the actors, yet the purpose of Lloyd’s still and contained approach is extremely well and atmospherically realised by a top-notch cast who bring such clarity to Pinter’s social commentary. The Pinter at the Pinter season is now alas on the home straight and as we embrace the clean-living principles that come with each New Year, keep a little in reserve because you’ll be want to accept an invitation to this wonderful Pinter party.

Pinter Six is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


About Maryam Philpott

This site takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over a thousand shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

7 responses to “Pinter Six: Party Time/Celebration – Harold Pinter Theatre

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    I liked Pinter Six a lot less than Pinter Five, I’m afraid. Where you, and others, find these (esp the Lloyd) productions ‘revelatory’ I tend to see a restrictive, almost didactic, approach that doesn’t really do justice to the scripts. I should stress that none of them comes near stooping to Robert Icke’s appalling strategy, in The Wild Duck, of lecturing the audience on how to approach the play. I still think this series is very much worthwhile; but I feel many of the pieces have much more to offer – and that, of all the sets so far, Patrick Marber’s Pinter Five said more by interfering less.

    I’ve seen Party Time once before and, while that student production couldn’t hope to match this cast for experience and quality, I found the presentation more rounded. The characters milled about as you would expect at a party whereas Lloyd has them arranged like a panel or a debating society with non-speakers not merely in the background but almost completely inactive. While it’s certainly valid to suggest the partygoers are not really enjoying themselves and/or are deliberately ignoring more momentous events I feel there should be more sense that the party, like the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, is actually happening. The contrast is important and downplaying the festive aspects does the piece a disservice.

    I can’t help feeling this play influenced Sarah Kane’s Blasted (SK was a friend of Pinter so she will certainly have known Party Time), written just a few years later, where the outside world literally comes crashing into a private ‘party’. Party Time is one of Pinter’s ‘what’s coming through the door?’ pieces (The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, The Room…there is a long list of potential qualifiers) but I found the frequent illumination of the door at the rear of the stage more slasher movie iconography than dramatic skill. If anything, the coup de theatre is ruined by this (just as the revelation of Sally’s real Night School activities was telegraphed by the unnecessary intro in Ed Stamboullian’s production). I also found Abraham Popoola’s Jimmy a bit too much like an Amnesty International appeal to be a fully effective part of the drama.

    The set for Celebration was pretty much the epitome of this season’s tendency almost gratuitously to ignore Pinter’s stage directions. The script specifies ‘Two curved banquettes’ and, for me, it’s hard to see the one oblong table as anything other than deliberate contrariness.

    “Lloyd controls the traffic between the initially separate scenarios with lighting changes, freeze frame techniques and a subtle musical flurry.”

    Perhaps; but the need to do so is itself artificially, gratuitously created. It’s pretty clear the two parties are at separate tables so putting them at the same table and using theatrical conventions (such as Russell and Suki facing away when not active) to suggest separation just seems perverse to me. Most ridiculous was Lambert’s ‘recognising’ Suki from afar when the staging has her considerably closer to him than to her husband.

    “who subvert social expectations to some degree; the people with money have neither education nor class, while the people without have both”

    You are by no means the only person to make this point – but I just can’t see it. There is a veneer of ‘culture’ about Richard, Sonia and the nameless waiter. The accents are smoother and the demeanour calmer but when you listen to what they actually say it’s every bit as ignorant/nonsensical as the cruder utterings of the richer customers. The 5-star restaurant that is inspired by a pub with wooden beams and cheese rolls; the important revelation that you don’t have to speak English to appreciate good food or enjoy sex; the litany of names from Bluff your Way in Literature/Cinema/History. Come on! I couldn’t help thinking Coward’s Amanda and Elyot might have referred to this using a contraction of Bolomon Isaacs. What this production did for me was make me tentatively think that it’s Russell and Suki who are the relatively well educated and refined characters – but that was mainly because I found Katherine Kingsley’s brassy Suki very unconvincing throughout. Here is a woman who (unlike any of the other five diners) uses phrases like ‘au fond’ completely in context. She’d know better than to talk like a refugee from an Essex based reality soap. I even started to fear Kingsley might take a similar approach to Marlene in the forthcoming Top Girls but realised that’s unfair as she’s almost certainly working under direction rather than giving her own interpretation of Suki. I promise this is the only time I’ll mention the C4 production but I can’t help comparing this Suki unfavourably with Janie Dee’s.

    I’m still recommending Pinter Six to my friends on the grounds, inter alia, that the performances are very good and, to echo your sentiments, an introduction to the world of Pinter is a good thing in itself (assuming, of course, it doesn’t put people off). I am also, however recommending that people seek out other productions as it’s my general opinion is that this series, commendably wide in scope, is rather more limited in vision.

    I don’t know what’s happened to R3OK. I’m just a contributor there and have no contact with the administrators so all I can do is wait and see. I’m hoping it’s just a glitch and someone will pick it up soon so I’m drafting reports on my theatre visits in anticipation of that. On this trip I also saw Original Death Rabbit at Jermyn St (a little sophomoric but not bad – some interesting questions raised) and An Enemy of the People at the Union. This is a rare (read, for me, unmissable) opportunity to see the Arthur Miller adaptation of Ibsen’s play but I got the impression that director Phil Willmott has further adapted the adaptation. There are other faults with the production, too, but they’re pretty minor and it’s certainly a play for our times. If you want my more detailed thoughts on either piece, let me know.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      After our discussion on Pinter 5, I didn’t think you’d like this one very much, although it has been one of my favourites! I take your point on the scripts and if you know them well then I can appreciate that too much deviation can be frustrating, but I have never felt more engaged or appreciative of the many faces of Pinter than during this season and have learnt so much more than I think we’ve lost, so in that sense a lot of people have found this revelatory.

      The great thing about theatre is that neither of us is right or wrong, there is space to perform every line exactly as written in a very traditional production, but there are also opportunities to try a new interpretation that might unlock new relevance and meaning, particularly decades later when time, tastes and stage innovation have moved beyond what was possible for the original writer. This season has delivered both and I’m glad we’ve both been able to value the collective effort for different reasons.

      I haven’t checked R3OK since your Pinter 5 posts so I’m sad to hear it’s disappeared. I haven’t seen those other shows but it’s a good year for Arthur Miller productions and I’m sure we’ll exchange opinions on the Old Vic productions soon. Enjoy your weekend and looking forward to hearing about your next trip.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    ” and I’m sure we’ll exchange opinions on the Old Vic productions soon.”

    The American Clock is a priority as I’ve never seen it before. All My Sons I can do without if the Pullman/Field groupies make tickets too hard to get. I saw a good production in Manchester not long ago with Don Warrington as Joe Keller and Doña Croll as Kate. The Old Vic will do well to better that. I’m in Surrey next week so have to pass through Waterloo several times so I plan to pop in to the Old Vic box office and see what they’ve got to offer. The Price at Wyndham’s also appeals. I’ve only seen that once – a rather less starry production at Liverpool Playhouse about 10 years ago. If you’re interested, I’ve left a few comments about An Enemy of the People under the TRH review if they ever get round to showing them (it took about a week for my couple of lines re Pinter 5 to appear!).

    Apologies for staying off topic but I thought I’d take this chance to mention the revival of the Howard Brenton Miss Julie at Jermyn St in April. You probably knew that but I asked them if the original cast, with Charlotte Hamblin as Julie, was retained and they said yes. Even if you don’t get asked to review this it’s worth seeing. You’re less likely to know that your favourite James Graham’s early(ish) short, Bassett, is on at The Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham along with Simon Stephens’s interesting Punk Rock. That’s next month. I’ve only seen one thing there to date (Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart) but it was good enough for me to risk booking for Hedda Gabler on Saturday. If that’s equally impressive the forthcoming, rather ambitious, season, looks rather tempting.

    My forthcoming trip is all amateur/fringe so far. As well as Hedda, I’ve booked Baal at the Bridewell and The Ruffian on the Stair at the Hope. I might have one last try for True West but I’m not keen enough to accept a box seat so might have to let it go.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John – I ‘m looking forward to The American Clock as well which is coming up very soon and I do have tickets for All My Sons already – the chance to see Bill Pullman on a British stage is an unexpected treat. I was tempted by The Price but funnily enough the prices were a bit off-putting with the cheapest seats in the circle not having enough of a rake to see terribly well around the heads in front.

      Thanks for the tips on everything else, you have a lot of interesting shows in the diary. Not sure I’ll be able to get to Twickenham for that short run but I’ll certainly bear the Jermyn Street season in mind. After a few quiet weeks over Christmas it’s all ramping up again.

      Enjoy your weekend and good luck with one last attempt at True West.

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