Harold Pinter is a former Nobel Laureate and revered institution of the theatre. I have never seen one of his plays. All I really know about him is from references in comedy (specifically a Stephen Fry reference to ‘Pinteresque pauses’ and the Derek and Clive sketch about two critics discussing Pinter using swearing in his plays). Therefore, the opportunity to sample his wares via a selection of sketches and monologues performed by a quartet of top comedy actors, including the wonderful Bill Bailey, seemed too good to resist.
Pinter’s People is a collection of 14 rarely seen sketches and, after watching it, I can understand why. The reviews haven’t been particularly kind, although the critics seem to hold the actors and the directors to account rather than the material. I found the opposite. If it weren’t for seasoned comedy actors wringing humour out of situations that wasn’t in the words, there would have been very little to bring merriment.
The majority of sketches seem to have an idea as the source of comedy rather than the actual sketch itself. Other sketches seem to be merely conversations that Pinter has overheard and thought were amusing and decided to write up as a black comedy sketch, but failed to show why he thought they were funny in the finished product. Two sketches brought some satisfaction. ‘That’s Your Trouble’ had some delightful bits of comedy in the interplay between Bailey and Kevin Eldon, and ‘Night’ was a wonderful scene between Bailey and Geraldine McNulty as an elderly couple trying to recall how their relationship begun, before remembering that they are still together for a reason, in a beautifully touching ending.
For some reason, the sketch ‘Victoria Station’, between Bailey as a mini cab controller and Eldon as a driver, got huge laughs, despite it being evident from early on that Eldon’s character has done something deeply unpleasant. People were still laughing at the end even when it is obvious that he has kidnapped a woman. The final sketch, ‘Last To Go’, was the very definition of the phrase ‘Pinteresque pauses’, as Bailey’s food vendor and Eldon’s newspaper seller have a ridiculously protracted conversation about nothing whatsoever. If it hadn’t been for Bailey doing his trademark facial tics in the pauses, it would have felt interminable.
Sometimes, when watching theatre, I wonder if I’m missing something because I haven’t studied drama at university to understand it. This was one of those occasions. I was glad that the reviews didn’t like the show, even though I didn’t want it to be bad, but it at least confirmed that I am not a complete idiot. This episode also suggested that I should avoid Pinter plays in the future, no matter how highly esteemed his work is held.