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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
OLD TIMES
at the Harold Pinter

SHIPWRECKED PSYCHES
By ALLEN ROBERTSON

  Kristin Scott Thomas, Lia Williams and Rufus Sewell/ Ph: Simon Annand

There is something off-kilter about this revival of Harold Pinter’s Old Times. Okay, hands up, I freely admit I’m in the minority. Virtually every London critic has showered this production with praise, and there is absolutely no doubt that the actors give it their all. But what irks me is the way director Ian Rickson turns all three of Pinter’s characters into prosaically unlikeable losers hemmed in by their own low horizons.
 
All right, the script does indicate that none of the three was ever a high flyer. They were at best hangers-on stranded on the periphery of London’s 1950s beat scene (which, even at its zenith, couldn’t begin to hold a candle to the nihilist paradise that was post-war Paris). But Rickson’s staging deliberately chooses to exaggerate Pinter’s lowest common denominators. 
 
Old Times was written in 1971, between The Homecoming and No Man’s Land. Like them, it is a claustrophobic, hermetically sealed puzzle that refuses to provide any convenient explications.
 
On the surface, at least, here’s what happens. Deeley and his wife Kate live in an isolated farmhouse near the sea. They are visited by Anna. She and Kate have not seen one another since they were roommates in London 20 years earlier. Deeley declares that he has never before heard anything about Anna, who Kate now dubs her “only” friend.
 
This surface is as splintered as any of Pinter’s other works. As the play goes on – two scenes, 80 minutes, no break – it becomes more than possible that Deeley is lying.
 
Actually, they’re all liars. They’re busy appropriating one another’s memories, perverting the past for their own satisfactions and self-justifications.
 
Rufus Sewell is the hapless Deeley. He’s a needy man/boy who glibly tries to cover up his insecurities with feeble jokes and “love me” posturing.
 
The moment that I will always remember from this production takes place when Deeley, on one side of the room, spouts some cock-of-the-walk inanity. Anna and Kate, on the other side of the room, turn frozen moonstone faces to him in mutual – what? – incomprehension, pity, dismissal, contempt. Whatever their blank stare is meant to mean, it deflates Deeley’s ego to the size of a pin. It’s quintessential Pinter. This is what women can do to men.
 
Unlike many others, I wasn’t lured in by the gimmick that is being touted as one of the selling points of this production – Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams swapping roles on a nightly basis. (As a dance critic I’ve spent my life watching a succession of different performers alternating in the same role, so this is hardly a novelty for me.)
 
The official opening night had Williams as Kate. She’s near catatonic – the sort of woeful waif who was probably a teenaged anorexic, or even worse.
 
Scott Thomas’ Anna is brash. She is trying far too hard to imbue the past with a fizz that might actually make it mean something, might even be able to add some zest to today’s dreary reality.
 
Despite the consummate talents of his smart actors, Rickson provides us with a trio of dumb losers. These people are maladjusted malcontents. They don’t like each other and I don’t like them, either.
 
What’s the old joke about a musical flop where the audience walks out of the theatre whistling the scenery? Well, both top-notch designer Hildegard Bechtler and lighting wizard Peter Mumford certainly do know how to whistle.
 
My own favorite opening-night moment happened as the audience was heading towards the exit. That’s when I overheard a man say to his date, “Rufus told me we wouldn’t understand it.”

 


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