Living the thigh life at the new Harold Pinter Theatre

Ian Rickson's "Old Times" reviewed.

There’s a moment during Ian Rickson’s new production of Pinter’s Old Times when you can’t stop looking at Kristin Scott Thomas’s feet. Her heel demands your gaze as it hesitates in mid air, motionless, before she flicks her leg to stand astride Rufus Sewell’s thigh. He looks up at her from his seat on the edge of a bed, and his formerly jaunty demeanour disappears in a sizzle of chemistry and possibility. The moment hangs, almost too long, and then she’s gone, thrusting herself backwards across the stage in a flurry of guilt and remembrance.

This little interplay is just one of the occasions when you realise that Old Times isn’t simply the play’s title – it’s an omen. Set in the rural home of a married couple, Kate and Deeley, it dramatises the visit of an old friend, Anna, with whom Kate lived as a girl in London 20 years earlier. Breezy reminiscences about visits to galleries and evenings huddled before a gas fire quickly give way to darker, more difficult memories as Deeley and Anna recall parallel yet contradictory versions of the past and, indeed, of Kate. With very few lines of her own, Kate exists almost entirely as a blank canvas for the other two to paint on.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Anna, Lia Williams as Kate
and Rufus Sewell as Deeley
. Photograph: Simon Annand

Much has been made in the publicity surrounding this production of how Scott Thomas and Lia Williams are alternating in the roles of Anna and Kate (a casting decision that gives weight to the idea that the two characters are not separate people but two possible outcomes of the same woman). The night I saw it, Scott Thomas gave a bleak, compelling performance as Anna, while Williams was suitably silent and brooding as Kate. Sewell interspersed Deeley’s subdued rage with the odd comedic note – an excellent foil to Scott Thomas’s cynical sighs. Because most people in the audience are unlikely to see the play more than once, the possibilities provided by the reversal are surely of little interest. A sceptic might say it’s nothing more than a box-office wheeze to pack out a newly rechristened theatre.

This production, with its autumnal, muted set and distinguished cast, is the first Pinter performed here since the West End’s Comedy Theatre was renamed in the great man’s honour. And, as befits the first opportunity to see a Harold Pinter play in the Harold Pinter Theatre, Old Times is laden with the playwright’s trademarks: scattergun dialogue interjected with pauses and silences; menacing undercurrents of manipulation; portentous lines that remain utterly unexplained (the repeated “I remember you dead” being a memorable instance in this play); and a niggling feeling that underlying it all is just abject, aimless misery. You leave the theatre feeling confused, dejected and more than a little unsatisfied – for the Pinter fan, it has everything.


Harold Pinter in 1979. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis