The Harold Pinter season at London’s Pinter Theatre reaches number six in the shape of two one act plays, both of which offer a comment on social inequality in the form of guests at a party. But if that description makes this seem like an earnest, politically correct evening then you should also be ready for some sharp and witty one-liners and several laugh-out-loud moments.
1991’s Party Time is set at a stiff and swanky party for society’s elite. The chit chat at the beginning tells us little more than that these are people who consider themselves important and are out to impress. Gradually a darker tone impinges as it becomes apparent Jimmy, the brother of one of the characters, is mysteriously missing. Other clues emerge about the nature of the society outside the party compared with that within. We are in some sort of authoritarian state where the upper echelons live in fear of the lower orders, a fear which they dispel by taking draconian steps to control them. The host at one point, for example, apologises for the traffic problems guests experienced on their way but promises steps will be taken to prevent this happening again. At the same time it’s clear they also live in fear, or at least trepidation, of each other.
In the second half Celebration from 2000 is on the surface an altogether more jolly piece centred on a wedding anniversary taking place at a posh restaurant. Although this time the guests are far from posh themselves. He does that classic comic thing of allowing us to feel superior to the characters we are watching. They reveal themselves to be ignorant, culture-less and boorish. Whilst doing so they provide many a good laugh as they forget what food they’ve ordered and can’t even seem to agree on whether the event they attended before dinner was a concert, an opera or a ballet. Meanwhile the waiter drops into these some hugely diverting diversions as he muses on the distinctly highly cultural escapades of his grandfather in a sort of fantasy aside in which his relative knew and met everyone from Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence to Ernest Hemingway, like some sort of Forrest Gump figure.
As one might expect from an evening of Pinter all this gives the audience plenty to chew on. But it’s also deftly flavoured with generous amounts of high and low comedy. On top of this we are rewarded with a high quality cast who sizzle through the lines and have the chance to show off their skills as they all appear in contrasting roles in both plays. In Party Time John Simm’s Terry appears all charm to his hosts but is plain nasty to his wife. Phil Davies is playing against type as Gavin, the sophisticated and eloquent host. In Celebration he seems more at ease, or perhaps just on more familiar ground to those who know him from television, puce of face and foul of mouth, but at least honest in his views, however unacceptable. Tracy-Ann Oberman is almost unrecognisable as the darkly brooding Charlotte in the first half and then enjoys herself enormously in a huge blond wig as the subject of The Celebration. Celia Imrie, meanwhile, is brilliant in both parts. Clipped and severe in Party Time and also donning a huge wig for Celebration – which suits her fabulously although it does seem to put the piece visually in the 80s even though it was written for the millennium. You’ll recognise all the other faces as well. Ron Cook is brilliantly watchable, especially as the increasingly drunk Lambert celebrating his anniversary.
This is one classy night at the theatre.
Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.
Pinter at the Pinter runs at The Pinter theatre until 23 February 2019.
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