Ever since The Fast Show made satirical sketch shows fashionable again, the likes of Little Britain, The Catherine Tate Show and The Look of Mitchell and Webb have produced some of the cleverest screen comedy of recent years. So why not give the same treatment to some of Pinter’s short monologues, two-handers and revue sketches?
The answer is to be found in the appallingly heavy-handed approach of Pinters People: this is not popularizing a great playwright, merely dumbing him down. Pinters subtle characterization and precise even musical use of language is decimated in a sledgehammer attack which in its relentless efforts to force laughs out of the audience ends up being seriously unfunny.
Though Bill Bailey, Kevin Eldon, Geraldine McNulty and Sally Phillips have all made their mark in hit TV series such as Black Books, Brass Eye, Smack the Pony and Green Wing, this is some of the worst, most over-the-top comic acting Ive ever seen on the stage. But director Sean Foley (of The Right Size) deserves to take even more of the blame for getting the tone so, so wrong.
Foley has also made a wrong decision on the structure of the show. The sketches cover the whole of Pinters career, from 1959 to 2006, so it would have been interesting to see them staged chronologically, showing how his writing has evolved, in particular its increasing politicization. Instead they are alternated between the male and female performers, with the titles illuminated on signs as each sketch begins.
The overplaying of the opening sketch Trouble in the Works – in which a shop steward tells a manager that the workers are refusing to make any of the products in the factory – sets the mood for the whole evening. What should be a humorous snapshot of industrial relations leading up to a pointed punchline is ruined by mugging from Eldon. The Black and White, in which two bag ladies drink tea together in a caff, is equally crassly performed, failing to bring out their lack of communication and sense of isolation, though the male equivalent in Last To Go, a fragmented, repetitive conversation between a hot drinks stall owner and a newspaper vendor, is more convincing.
Request Stop, where a woman harasses other people waiting at a bus stop, is a comic portrait of loneliness and paranoia, here destroyed by making McNultys character a ludicrous drunk. Phillips does not catch the air of underlying desperation in the monologues Special Offer and Tess, admittedly among Pinters weaker pieces. However, the contradictory reminiscences of a long-married couple (Bailey and McNulty) in Night are nicely expressed, while the surreal interchange between a cab office controller (Bailey) and one of his drivers (Eldon) who seems to have lost the plot, in Victoria Station, is quite amusing though it misses its sinister edge.
The more political sketches lack any bite. Precisely, in which two government officials clinically discuss the exact number of people who are expendable, is too broadly played, and there is no feeling of threat whatsoever in The New World Order, where two torturers taunt their blindfolded victim. Press Conference, wherein Baileys totalitarian minister glibly justifies the use of force in cultural re-education, is more effective, but again needs more menace.
Performing these intimate works in the large Haymarket theatre doesnt help but the highly successful staging of almost exactly the same ones in the Lyttleton auditorium at the National Theatre five years ago demonstrated how to do it properly. The rhythms and pauses of these beautifully written sketches (which often touch on the same themes explored in Pinters longer plays) need to be respected, and they should be played straight, not with a lot of unnecessary comic business. Otherwise the result is not so much a celebration of Pinters work as a travesty.