The season of Harold Pinter’s one-act plays comes to a glorious climax with two of his earliest pieces. The pairing of Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman in The Dumb Waiter (1957) guarantees a pre-sold hit. But it is Jamie Lloyd’s production of a lesser-known radio play, A Slight Ache (1959), with John Heffernan and Gemma Whelan from Game of Thrones, that provides a genuine shock and surprise.
The Dumb Waiter is a classic study of two gunmen nervously awaiting instructions in the bleak basement of a Birmingham restaurant. It owes much to Hemingway’s The Killers and anticipates Martin McDonagh’s movie In Bruges. At the same time, it combines the staccato rhythms of music-hall cross-talk with a political study of power and victimisation. Gus, an anxious hitman, asks endless questions while the senior partner, Ben, obeys orders. In Lloyd’s production, even the dumb waiter comes crashing down with the force of a guillotine.
But the play is also a joy for actors. Past pairings have included Lee Evans and Jason Isaacs, and Kenneth Cranham and Colin Blakely. The current duo are a match for their predecessors. Freeman avoids the temptation to make the fretful Gus overtly comic: instead he gives us a dapper organisation man, aware that something is not quite right. Dyer, with his looming physique, is the perfect epitome of fake assurance as he rubs his sweaty palms on his thighs. The beauty of this production is that it shows both men are aware that they are part of a hierarchy of terror.
If A Slight Ache comes as more of a revelation, it is because of Lloyd’s radical staging. He openly acknowledges this is a radio play and has Heffernan and Whelan initially sitting at microphones as they play a comfortably middle-class couple, Edward and Flora, having a mild spat over the breakfast table. But the action hinges on the intrusion into their lives of an old match-seller who exposes the precariousness not just of their marriage but of their whole existence.
On stage, the match-seller is normally a visible presence: sweaty, decrepit and balaclava-helmeted. Lloyd, however, follows the conventions of radio drama and leaves him to our imaginations. As a result, it becomes a play about two people projecting their deepest fears and desires on to a fantasy figure. Heffernan’s Edward moves from a breezily comic attempt to co-opt the unseen match-seller into his own world (“I was in commerce too”) into revelations of panic and insecurity. Whelan is equally remarkable. She adopts a cut-class accent that gradually yields to a disclosure of her unfulfilled longings: when she urges the match-seller, “Speak to me of love”, it is in the breathily urgent tone of a woman who, you infer, has long been denied the joys of sex.
These two plays conclude a season that has itself been full of discoveries. It has reminded us that Pinter, while experimenting with form, had a unified imagination. It has also demolished the myth that one-act plays, like short stories, are an inferior form. In Pinter’s hands they are as richly fulfilling as many an inordinate three-hour epic.