Monday 21 January 2013

Theatre Review: Old Times (Harold Pinter Theatre)

“You see, this is our marvellous Bard, Barbara: you cannot paraphrase. It’s not like Pinter where you can more or less say what you like as long as you leave enough gaps...” Victoria Wood’s great gag may slip errantly into the mind during less-successful productions of Harold Pinter plays. And it certainly slipped into the mind of this viewer at several points during Ian Rickson’s underwhelming production of Old Times, which is currently previewing at, yup, the Harold Pinter Theatre. It’s not really Rickson who’s at fault here, though. The director’s take on the play - though a tad too reverential - has an undeniable chic efficiency. It’s the play itself that’s the dud.

Focusing on the reunion of two old friends, Anna and Kate, when the former visits the latter in the rural home she shares with her husband, Deeley, Old Times presents itself as a poetic exploration of an ambiguously shared past: of memory as a site of contestation. (Pinter had been adapting Proust at the time of the play's composition.) The trio’s recollections of their time in 1940s London - of who’s met who before and how - don’t match up, pivoting around the memory of a screening of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out which both Anna and Deeley claim to have seen in the company of the apparently pliant Kate on different occasions.

There’s promise in the premise, but what a bloodless corpse of a play Pinter fashions from this scenario. Though often revived Old Times is, I think, one of the playwright’s weakest works: pretentious, hollow, cryptic but not insightful, full of dialogue that has the ring of parody. (As often, Pinter ends up sounding Pinteresque.) It’s all hints, suggestions and evasions, along with a few tossed-in Absurd linguistic slips (Anna to Deeley: “You have a wonderful casserole ... I mean wife”). Underpinning it is a half-baked slab of male anxiety about female/female relationships (hey, might Deeley be the “odd man out” in this threesome?) – an aspect that doesn’t have enough hostility in it to give the proceedings the icky kick of The Homecoming, say. A play in which the protagonists’ past gradually insinuates its way into the present should be riveting and disturbing but Pinter’s characters are so depthless and underwritten that precious little seems to be at stake here.

The actors aren’t working together - yet - in a way that would help redeem the drama’s deficiencies. As Anna, a figure present, possibly, only in Deeley's and/or Kate’s minds, Kristin Scott Thomas (who proved her Pinter chops two years ago in Rickson’s production of  Betrayal) spends a lot of time stretching herself out languorously. Playing with her hair, caressing the furniture, she tries hard to bring an erotic charge to the piece, and certainly looks a dream, but the effort is - at the moment at least - all too apparent in her rather self-conscious performance. Rufus Sewell also seems ill at ease, slipping out of character (sic) for sometimes strained comic effects and moving about the set awkwardly at times, as though having his stage directions fed to him. Only the compelling Lia Williams appears to be in her element already, giving her line readings the tension and airy weirdness to suggest that the mannered dialogue just might add up to something, after all. The production’s much-discussed gimmick is that the two actresses will alternate their roles, eventually tossing a coin to decide who’ll play Anna and Kate at that performance. Whether you consider this a revelatory conceit that sheds light on the play’s themes or simply a cynical money-grabbing gesture will doubtless depend on how profound you find Old Times to be in the first instance. Those unconvinced may leave Rickson’s production thinking that, in this arid enigma, it doesn’t matter so very much who plays who (or – per Wood – who says what). And wishing that they’d spent their evening watching Odd Man Out instead.

The production runs for an interval-free 1 hour and 25 minutes. Booking until 6th April.


  1. Mostly agree with this. I sat in a theatre mostly full of baby boomers paying reverence to their sixties bard. But I always thought theatre should move me, one of its great assets, but as an old lady in front said, "I've never been so bored in all my life." Still the crowd applauded and the tills rung. Was it gullibility or politeness, or was it a theatre museum piece that showed us how the sixties weren't really all that swinging, and how the middle classes were so insular. A waste of good actors, and director, but the bottom line will say this is what the punters want. The grey ones who can afford it, anyway.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Yes, it's pretty deathly, isn't it? It got a fairly lukewarm response at the performance I saw. I know people who loved the Donmar production from a few years back, so maybe a smaller space helps. For me the problem's the play, though.