Jamie Lloyd’s six-month season of Pinter’s one-act plays is proving instructive and pleasurable. The opening programme reminded us of Pinter’s preoccupation with the roots of power. This new pairing demonstrates his fascination with marital solitude and capacity to write great parts for actors. Tamsin Greig, in Pinter Three, reveals an emotional range that suggests nothing in the classic or modern rep is now beyond her.
Greig appears first in Landscape, from 1969 – Pinter’s study of a married couple, Beth and Duff, who seem to exist in separate worlds. Greig, speaking into a stand mic, employs a soft Irish lilt that intensifies Beth’s lyrical remembrance of past passion. Keith Allen as Duff, in Lloyd’s inventive production, hits a note of violent exasperation as he desperately tries to communicate with his detached wife.
Greig is even more extraordinary as Deborah in A Kind of Alaska (1982), based on an Oliver Sacks case study. She combines the vocal register of a teenage girl with the terror of a woman returning to consciousness – and an unrecognisable world – after a 29-year sleep. But Lloyd’s production makes clear that the real tragedy lies in the irreparable gulf between the doctor who has lovingly tended her (Allen) and his estranged wife (a bleakly discomfited Meera Syal).
Both these pieces leave one wrung through. Lee Evans brings idiosyncratic eccentricity, however, to some of the shorter pieces. In Monologue (1973), he plays a loner trapped in the present but feeding off an imagined past, brilliantly deploying perpetually sidelong glances and a body whose limbs seem to exist in a permanent state of civil war. Evans teams up with Tom Edden to hilarious effect in a famous revue sketch, Trouble in the Works (1959) as he itemises, with mounting despair, the workers’ revolt against the bronze draw-off cock “with or without handwheel”. Pinter Three is terrific.
Many of the same themes recur in Pinter Four, comprising Moonlight (1993) and Night School (1960), but the effect is patchier. This is partly because Lyndsey Turner’s production of the former is a bit clunky. Moonlight captures well the sad strangeness of the marriage between a dying, scatological civil servant and his semi-detached wife, well played by Robert Glenister and Brid Brennan. But you never feel, as you should, that their estranged sons and ethereal daughter inhabit their own distinct, inviolable worlds.
Night School, written for television, fares much better in Ed Stambollouian’s production. This is early funny-mysterious Pinter about a woman (a sprightly Jessica Barden) who effortlessly leads a dual life as schoolteacher and nightclub hostess. Pinter’s dialogue is sharply comic: Al Weaver, as the heroine’s besotted admirer, gazes at her, rapturously announcing: “Your eyes, they’re northern eyes. They’re full of soot.” A virtually unrecognisable Janie Dee gives a vivid study of one of Weaver’s aunts – a bustling spinster whose every look and stride seems to carry a hint of reproach.
It is good to be reminded of Pinter’s gift for comedy. But the abiding impression of the two evenings is of Pinter’s periodic view of the marital state as, in Beckett’s words, “alone together, so much shared”.
• At Pinter theatre, London, until 8 December.