Harold Pinter’s famous pauses are usually full of menace. In a new London staging of “Old Times” starring Kristin Scott Thomas, the chills turn to chuckles.
Playing for laughs is a bold move which works surprisingly well, when delivered by actors on top of their game. Scott Thomas is joined by Rufus Sewell and Lia Williams. All can time a comically raised eyebrow to perfection. Strangely, it makes the menace of the 1971 play even more disturbing.
The action of the 80-minute piece takes place over a single evening. Married couple Kate and Deeley are meeting Kate’s old friend Anna. The women haven’t seen each other for 20 years. As reminiscences flow, details blur or don’t match. An anonymous sobbing man recalled by Anna may have been Deeley himself. Tensions rise. Kate remembers something horrifically violent.
Scott Thomas and Williams alternate roughly every four performances as Kate and Anna, a neat idea from director Iain Rickson. I saw Scott Thomas bring an effusive energy to Anna. She hops across the stage, giggles and brings a grounded realism to her acting. Then as the tone darkens, she becomes more still, inscrutable.
Williams is great too as the quieter Kate, and can fill a blank stare with all sorts of possibilities. Rufus Sewell, speaking with deliberately pompous over-enunciation, does a fine job of conveying repressed anger.
Pinter sets up a world in which non sequiturs abound, and causes have no immediate effects. It’s an impossible juggling act to keep in the air and there’s a lag of tension in the middle of the work. The energy flows again toward the end, when another Pandora’s Box of possible meanings is revealed.
Designer Hildegard Bechtler creates a not quite realistic large bare room for the action, and provides handsome costumes for the two women: a turquoise dress for Anna, and claret velvet slacks for Kate. The look, the laughs, then the shocks -- all stick in the mind. Rating: ****.
Another top-notch cast assembles for a new production of Simon Gray’s 1981 staffroom comedy “Quartermaine’s Terms” starring Rowan Atkinson.
The action is set in a Cambridge language school in the early 1960s (a period-detailed set by Tim Hatley). At first the teachers seem rather jolly. Then slowly their ghastly home situations become clearer: a vicious mother, a depressive daughter, a philandering husband. Their attempts to laugh them off become more desperate.
It’s a slight piece with episodes in place of plot, and could easily fall flat. With a superb ensemble able to convey every comic subtext, it mostly sparkles.
Atkinson avoids any “Mr. Bean” pratfalls, and is excellent as the well-meaning, lonely St John Quartermaine, leading a dazed life. He suggests the hopeless pain behind Quartermaine’s vague smiles and pleasant remarks.
He’s matched by Felicity Montagu as the mother-baited Melanie, and Conleth Hill as a delightfully pompous Henry.
Director Richard Eyre is in control of the knife-edge balance of laughter and pain as Rickson is. Rating: ****.
At the Almeida Theatre, playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz adapts Henry James’s short story “The Turn of the Screw” about two Victorian children haunted by evil spirits.
Her main contribution is to make explicit things which James chose to keep vague and unsettling.
The children sing inappropriate songs full of sexual references. The little boy calls his tight-laced governess “a whore who would open her legs for the whole navy.”
Freudian, schmeudian. It’s all rather flat and dull, despite some excellent work from Gemma Jones as the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Rating: ***.
“Old Times” is at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Information: http://www.atgtickets.com
“Quartermaine’s Terms” is at Wyndham’s Theatre. Information: http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk
“The Turn of the Screw” is at the Almeida. Information: http://www.almeida.co.uk or +44-20-7359-4404
What the Stars Mean: ***** Excellent **** Very good *** Average ** Mediocre * Poor (No stars)Worthless
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food and John Mariani on wine.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)