views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Pinter's Night
The Canal Café
11th August 2013


Laura Atherton and Guy Evans

Photography © Iddo Gruengard

There are times at which a writer and director meld perfectly, singing from the same hymn sheet - to use a low-brow example, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. There are other times at which the writer and director are at loggerheads, creating a jumbled mess (naming no names). Then there's the rare third time, at which the director takes the writer's words and, for a time as a reviewer, you're sitting there thinking he's playing Russian roulette - only with the gun pointed squarely at your face. Tick, tick, tick, tick... then the final tick when the floodgates of your brain open and realise he knew all along. Because he's a very clever so-and-so. This is one of those times.

The original Night, by Harold Pinter, was one of eight short sketches that made up his Mixed Doubles output of 1969. He himself notes that one of the more unique elements of Night is that there's no menace - a lot of his work being charged with tension and dread. Apparently director/quasi-writer Iddo Gruengard really didn't get that memo, and I'm glad of it. What was a throwaway nostalgic, amiable seven-minute foray into the Men are from Mars, Women from Venus dichotomy becomes, under his hand, a dangerous foray into a relationship loaded with subtext, the fuse having been lit long before the audience walks into the space. Oddly, it becomes more focussed on Pinter's stylings - and a lot of Theatre of the Absurd (my favouritest theatre topic ever, thanks) - than Pinter would have ever anticipated.

Plot is pretty slim, unsurprisingly. It's about a man (here, Guy Evans) and a woman (Laura Atherton) - originally in their mid 50s but recast to be in their late 20s - reminiscing, not entirely successfully, about their first date. He thinks by a bridge, she, near some railings. He's fixated by her physicality, her by his more sensuous nature. He grabbed her breasts, she remembered he held her head. The disagreement even comes down to whether or not a child is crying. And that's how old Harold had it - a couple getting on, misremembering, but for everything in the now it seemed not to matter. Romantic idealism, a melange of all previous relationships, but they soldier through. The bridge and the railings become a metaphor for that division and unity that links exactly with what Pinter was all about - talking to mask the unsaid, in this case love. It's Pinter at his soppiest, really.

Not so with Gruengard's much darker piece. Pinter claimed it to be without menace, but in this case we're witnessing a full-blown row. Both are hurt that the other can't remember what happened as they believed it. Without giving too much away - in the hopes it will happen again - the pair stalk the space spitting their recollections at each other like venom. Evans especially takes on a confrontational stance, shoulders back, ready to spring. Atherton is no less involved, accusatory and barbed. They both give pitch-perfect, unsettling performances. We're clearly not filled in on the whole picture, but perhaps the empty playground swings projected onto the tablecloth as the audience file in provides a clue as to the source of the discord, throwaway lines from the writer taking on a life (or sadly not) of their own.

Laura Atherton and Guy Evans

Photography © Iddo Gruengard

We, the audience, are dragged into their confrontation. The snapshots of bridges and railings in front of us drive home one of Pinter's points. The couple - and Gruengard - use the audience as chess pieces in their petty game, flirting and interacting and seducing us all. But it's the repetition that really hits home, shifting all the time - an absurdist cliche used perfectly in this context, changing but never really changing. The use of audience as mouthpieces covers the Pinter silence and, depending on your viewpoint reinforces their stance or absolves them of all responsibility in saying their piece.

That's not to say there isn't a happy ending or laughs. There really are. Possibly out of nervousness, probably at the sheer gall with which the director involves us. Definitely at the fantastic, tricksy conclusion that unites bridge and railings in a way that justifies, if the staging already didn't, the choice of the Canal Café as a venue. Walking over the selfsame bridge as I left, my thoughts were a combination of swearing and laughter - something bold, that clearly shouldn't have worked but completely did.

Selfishly, I'm incredibly happy that this is the only staging of Night that's happening at the Camden Fringe. I'm sure I wasn't the only one to go away thinking I'd been a part of something special. But in writing this, I need to implore the director and cast to seek a way to restage it, just so those hardy, brave souls who enjoy the same irreverent but beautifully worked plays can get in on the joke too. Even if it baffles, even if it scares, you can't for one second argue that this version of Pinter's Night isn't in the wonderful spirit of experimental, eccentric theatre.

Pinter's Night was performed on 11th August 2013 at the Canal Café, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Warwick Avenue (Bakerloo)

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