Review – Old Times, Harold Pinter Theatre

Tuesday 29 January 2013

OldTimes“A matinee, a Pinter play” as Sondheim’s “Ladies Who Lunch” lyric goes.

And that’s just what it was. A matinee of a Pinter play and at the Harold Pinter Theatre to boot. Does that make the Whingers ladies who lunch?

Well, one Whinger might be getting in touch with his feminine side over a salad nicoise. Andrew was far too busy, emergency ironing or something, anything seemed preferable to him; there was no Pinteresque pause before Andrew replied to Phil’s suggestion that they go and see Old Times.

Which left Phil free to go with Sharon who, unlike Andrew, is “partial to a bit of Pinter” and – with a mere 80 minutes running time – a bit of Pinter it proved to be.

The gimmick in Ian Rickson‘s production smacks of self indulgence initially, but it’s nothing new (think the National’s Frankenstein or Larry Olivier and Johnny Gielgud who used to swap doublets and hoses for the Bard), Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams swap the roles of Kate and Anna and also undies apparently (the characters that is, not the actresses one must hope).

Unless you’re a massive Pinter fan or swoon in the presence of KST it’s unlikely you’ll see it twice – though we do hold our hands up and admit to seeing both versions of Frankenstein. Presumably most critics will be encouraged to sit through it twice. The big worry is, how the hell is Mark Shenton going to fit it in?

Anna (KST at this performance) comes to stay with her old friend Kate and and her skirt-looker-upper husband Deeley (Rufus Sewell) who has never met Anna before. Or has he? Anna’s the more glamorous of the two women (although when Phil last saw it Julie Christie played the Kate) – so this seemed the more obvious casting permutation despite the fact she’s meant to be, ahem, only 40 – and says she has loads of friends while Kate claims Anna is her only friend. Or is she?

The thing is who do you believe? Either the trio of characters are like the Whingers and have shocking memories or they’re telling porkies. You never quite know who is telling the truth.

Nothing really happens. They talk about the past a lot, how Kate met Deeley at the cinema watching a Robert Newton film, how the word ‘lest’ is rarely used in speech these days (note to selves lest we forget: use ‘lest’ more frequently) and the different ways two single beds can be arranged. They drink, they stare out of the window and Kate takes a bath. Phew!

The nearest thing to anything resembling action was when Sewell dropped the cork from the brandy bottle, threw it against the back wall of the fairly stark set (Hildegard Bechtler) and it bounced back the full depth of the stage and fell into the audience. But we can’t promise that will happen at every performance.

What is clear is that Pinter was a bit of an old tart teasing the audience with this cryptic set up. But it’s also surprisingly entertaining and often very funny. It’s enigmatically and compellingly performed by all three: Sewell wears a seductively flirtatious knowing twinkle which flips to an expression of seductively flirtatious menace and back quite mesmerisingly whilst indulging in cat-and-mouse games with the two women. Occasionally Phil was distracted by the knowledge that the women change roles nightly. Does the role-swapping suggest Anna and Kate might even be different versions of the same person? Who knows?

As things turn even darker towards then end there’s a suggestion that one of the women is dead. Perhaps they’re both dead? Maybe they all are. Are we seeing dead people again?

Law courts would be rendered redundant if you follow the other thesis that memory can’t be trusted. Perhaps the Whingers suffer false memory syndrome too and Fram was a good play after all? Was Too Close Too the Sun really as amusingly bad as we remember? Perhaps we’ll reconstruct the past and look back on Viva Forever! nostalgically one day?

Phil also found time to wonder if Scott Thomas might ever be made a dame of the British Empire or does she spend too much time in France to be thus honoured? And is there an equivalent title in France and if so what is it? Notre Dame Kristen Scott Thomas has a certain je ne sais quoi.

Anyway Phil came away sufficiently impressed that he wouldn’t rule out seeing the alternately-cast version. But then perhaps his memories of this matinee shouldn’t be trusted either.




5 Responses to “Review – Old Times, Harold Pinter Theatre”

  1. Mark Shenton Says:

    To answer your question, Phil: I *am* seeing it twice — but have fitted it in only by extensively re-arranging my diary this week! I went into the last preview of QUATERMAINE’S TERMS last night instead of tonight so I could go to one of the OLD TIMES variations tonight, moved the NT’s PORT from last night to tomorrow’s matinee, then going to see the second OLD TIMES cast at the opening on Thursday!!!!

  2. Rae Coates Says:

    I am reliably informed that the Ladies exchange Roles every three or four days . And they do have their own underwear, naughty boys !

  3. Sandown Says:

    Flirtatious as he may be, Rufus Sewell is completely wrong for the role of Deeley. As the name indicates, the character is supposed to be an Irishman, of basic origin, who has now climbed into the ranks of the artsy middle-class as a documentary film-director. Think Colin Blakely, who played the part originally in 1971, or Michael Gambon, who followed him in 1985 — hence Deeley’s reversion to the brogue in a couple of speeches, his heavy drinking, his alternation between belligerence and whining, and so on and so forth. Sewell approaches the role as if he were appearing in another Tom Stoppard play.

    The production is spot on in setting the play in 1970 — with brown and orange furnishings and Kate in her crushed velvet slacks — although the later “looking up Anna’s skirt” moments are much more explicit than in the original version.

    If anyone wants to know what the play itself was based on, they need only to look up Billington’s biography of Pinter (pages 218-19 in the hardback), which records the playwright’s own life and loves in the London of twenty years before, the “old times” of the play’s title.

  4. Ged Ladd Says:

    We saw this play at the Donmar perhaps 10 years ago, with Jeremy Northam, Gina McKee and Helen McCrory. Northam was far from bog-Irish as Deeley and I am pretty sure that the two superb actresses in question stuck to their own parts and their own undies.

    Daisy tends to be strongly averse to seeing any play a second time, even if the first time was 10 years ago, so I don’t think we’ll get to see this production.

    I really can imagine KST and LW as the ladies, but I cannot envisage Rufus Sewell as Deeley.

    The movie they obsess about is Odd Man Out. I think of it as a James Mason film rather than a Robert Newton film, although both were in it of course.

    We thought it was a great play when we saw it back then.

    I’m not sure if this helps with anyone’s decision-making process for this production. Other than to say that I’m pretty sure my memory of it is reliable, which means it must have been a good’n.

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