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|A CurtainUp London Review
Celebration and The Room
By Lizzie Loveridge
To commemorate the year of his seventieth birthday, we have a new play, from Harold Pinter, Celebration, which he is directing at the Almeida alongside his very first play, The Room (1957). It is worth taking a moment to remember that when Pinter's plays were first staged in the late fifties, most critics disliked them.
Only Harold Hobson and J C Trewin acknowledged that Pinter was a natural dramatist. The distinctive feeling of his plays is that they are full of ambiguous suspense, the speech is mundane, the characterisation is skilful, but that they are lacking in plot. There are no neat endings, no satisfactory conclusions and they often raise issues of ugliness or violence. They defy explanation and as such keep one's mental processes uncomfortably churning long after the end of the play. They are disturbing and they make us ask questions without the security of answers. This is the essence of Pinteresque.
The Room starts in seedy bedsitter land. Eileen Diss' accurate set crams into one room a bed, a sink, a stove, a dining table, a gas fire, and some sticks of dingy furniture. This is where Rose Huggs (Lindsay Duncan in the role created in London by Pinter's first wife, Vivien Merchant) lives, cooks, eats and sleeps, all in one meagre room. The room is her security but it also confines her. As she busies with the breakfast for Bert Huggs, (Steven Pacey), she prattles on incessantly and, inadvertently amusingly. He reads, silently, but moving his lips in the manner of an insecure reader. As he eats his breakfast he continues to ignore her, never saying a word or looking up.
Lindsay Duncan, dressed against the cold with thick lisle stockings and her hair tight inside a woollen scarf tucked into a turban, makes a break with her more usual roles. The audience reaction is to laugh at this drudge of a woman, at the repetition of her themes, at her unaffected, naturalistic monologue and to wonder why men so resent the affectionate care that Rose epitomises? She receives a succession of unsettling visitors: her landlord, two strangers, would be tenants and finally the mysterious man who has been waiting for her in the basement. All help to build towards a sinister and violent climax. By the end we have been on an emotional seesaw with these passive and enraged, callous and tender, angry and conciliatory characters. Changes are sudden and inexplicable, without the security of a logical chain of events. There is no laughter in the final scene, but gasps of horror as Rose's husband confronts a black man who is blind. The whole is enigmatic and disconcerting, and finely acted.
Contrasting is Celebration, which starts in an altogether more light hearted way. Is this Pinter turned comedian? Only on the surface. Underneath there is still menace and the insecurity of ambiguity.
The setting is two tables at an expensive and fashionable restaurant, one occupied by a bank manager and his wife and the other by two married couples celebrating an anniversary. The quartet are two brothers married to two sisters. The self-made men are Flash Harries, (Keith Allen and Andy de la Tour), on the edges of crime, controlling and nasty; their women (Lindsay Duncan and Susan Wooldridge) enjoy the wealth and do not ask too many questions.
At first, as everyone is ridiculed, the play seems little more than a satire on class and social manners. The fey restaurant owner, the superb Thomas Wheatley, amusingly corrects the bank manager's wife on her French pronunciation as he repeats the word ambience to her slowly and correctly. All rises to surreal heights with the intrusion of the waiter and the maitresse d'hotel as they take the play off at a tangent. The waiter (Danny Dyer) interjects with an unbelievable description of his grandfather's life, his intimate acquaintance with notable literary figures from Thomas Hardy through Ezra Pound to TS Eliot, with celebrities, film stars, singers and politicians -- a name dropping fest.
In Pinter style we are taken off on a fantastic journey into a zany cul de sac. Indira Varma, is outstanding as the divulgent, digressing maitresse, turning the table talk from pleasant platitudes, the turgidly "matter of fact" to the wildly funny, "You don't have to be English to enjoy sex. You don't have to speak English to enjoy sex. Lots of people enjoy sex without being English. I've known one or two Belgian people for example who love sex and they don't speak a word of English. The same applies to Hungarians."
Lia Williams, who won an award on her Broadway debut in Skylight, sparkles as the bank manager's wife. She sweetly massages her husband's ego, a dizzy redhead forgiving him for an extra-marital affair. It is as if this at times incongruous couple are strangers.
The ensemble performances are topnotch. The waiter is allowed to close the play with an evocative memory of the view through a telescope and some time with his grandfather. The boy recalls what may be a real memory saying, "My grandfather introduced me to the mystery of life and I'm still in the middle of it. I can't find the door to get out."
Just as the room in the first play represents Rose's security and the visitors threaten to take this away, so the restaurant is only as safe as its clients and employees let it be. The Celebration is not as physically violent as The Room but the playwright is as cruel to his characters. Pinter's first play is set in poverty, his latest in the world of "new money" where wealth buys you a table at the most expensive of restaurants but not acceptance.