A Party for Pinter

Harold Pinter is back, with a double-hander: his first play, written in 1957, and his most recent. K

Here it is - a showcase of Harold Pinter's career. His first play, The Room, written in 1957, and his new play, Celebration, are at the Almeida Theatre together, directed by the man himself. But would it prove a celebration? "I am so glad not to be reviewing this," someone murmured behind me, "because you could never say what you really thought of it." The implication was clear: Pinter has put himself beyond blame. I suffer from no such inhibition, but have no need to struggle with myself either. I was bowled over by the evening.

The Room is beautifully acted and directed. It is an almost perfect play, and its originality does not date. Perhaps this is, in part, because Pinter's plays are not polemical. He writes about people and their deficiencies. He is not primarily interested in trying to illuminate a period in time. There is no such thing as "ordinary" in Pinter. He shows us how strange even the most "normal" moments are. His plays are full of people who do not know themselves. They are not in control of their language, but Pinter is. He seems to be a realist, but is nothing of the kind, his language betraying more than the speaker could ever have intended. Over and again, he walks into the dark. No one writes like him - though not for want of trying.

This is not to imply that The Room is not of its time. On the contrary, the designer Eileen Diss invites us into a 1950s room, grey and sepia, that is rather like the inside of a teapot. Rose (Lindsay Duncan on first-rate form) keeps talking to her speechless husband, Bert (Steven Pacey), as he shovels bacon into his mouth. But he turns down all her servings of conversation: fear of cold weather, the "news" that it is getting dark, anxiety about the tenant in the basement. Rose praises the room itself. It is a room, she keeps saying, in which "you stand a chance". But not much of a chance, for this is the story of a haunted house.

The landlord, Mr Kidd (Henry Woolf, who directed the first production of The Room, compellingly recreates the part he played then), has a face like a smiling pumice stone. Even his clothes look unhealthy - he stands about in an off-colour cardigan making dismal pleasantries. Mr and Mrs Sands, hoping to rent a room, show up. Mr Sands (played to thuggish perfection by Keith Allen) is a jumpily disagreeable bloke, in a pristine sheepskin coat, with an intemperate wish to know best about everything. He and his wife (Lia Williams, not fully in charge of her cockney accent) let it be known that "the room" is shortly to become vacant. It is a destabilising piece of news. But it is the arrival of Riley, the black, blind man from the basement (a most arresting performance from George Harris), that provides the extraordinary climax to the play. How does Riley know Rose? Why does she say she doesn't know him? And why does he call her "Sal"? Into this name, he pours love, sorrow, reproach. And what's the reason for her transformation from anger to tenderness? When Rose feels the contours of Riley's face, it is as if she, not he, were blind - a kind of prophecy, as the last line of the play makes clear. The Room is moving, funny, sinister and mysterious - classic Pinter.

Celebration is set in a restaurant. There has been a huge improvement in the standard of living between the first play and the last. Damask table cloths, tall glasses and glittering bottles are on display. Rose would not last a second in such a place. The immediate impression - seized in a second as if one were walking into the restaurant oneself - is of vitality, vulgarity and ease. The language is coarse, scintillating and free. "Osso buco" is introduced early on, as a curse (you need to pronounce "buco" with especial venom). But this is as nothing to the insults soon traded between the party "celebrating" a wedding anniversary. If it isn't their last supper, it ought to be - for these people loathe one another. The staging is superb: the diners make a marvellously gruesome line-up - Max Ernst would have had a field day painting their faces. Andy de la Tour is especially riveting. He looks as though he has a permanent bad smell under his nose.

The weakest dialogue belongs to the table-for-two where Suki (a dazzling Lia Williams) and Russell (Steven Pacey) take each other apart. She says she wants him to be rich so that he will buy her "houses and panties" (an unconvincing line). She reminisces vengefully about being a "plump young secretary" and having it off behind filing cabinets. She is a kind of siren/buffoon, and their talk is an ugly strip cartoon - with all the limitations that that entails.

During their first exchange, at the very beginning of Celebration, I feared that the restaurant could never compete with the room. But I quickly changed my mind. There is always the danger, in Pinter's later plays, that he will sound as if he is parodying himself. But the music and tempo of Celebration are different to that of the first play. It is more overtly cruel, more extrovert, much faster. It has more panache than pathos. But it is clearly by the same hand, and Pinter's mastery of the non sequitur is still intact. As Sonia (Indira Varma), the maItresse of the restaurant, hilariously explains: "My mother was a chiropodist. Are you going to try our bread and butter pudding?" This is no ordinary restaurant. The staff are, comically, more civilised than the punters.

The two plays are marvellous companion pieces. In each, there is a key figure who cuts through the play like a knife. It is the young waiter, marvellously played by Danny Dyer, who upsets Celebration - just as the blind man shakes The Room to its foundations. The waiter is always interrupting diners to tell fantastic stories about his well-connected grandfather. It's all fantasy - and most entertaining. Until the end, when all the diners have left. And then - like the sun going down at speed - there is the sudden, unmistakably Pinteresque sense of life as stranger than it had seemed, more tragic and unpalatable. Celebration and The Room are at the Almeida Theatre in London (020-7359 4404) until 29 April Here it is - a showcase of Harold Pinter's career. His first play, The Room, written in 1957, and his new play, Celebration, are at the Almeida Theatre together, directed by the man himself. But would it prove a celebration? "I am so glad not to be reviewing this," someone murmured behind me, "because you could never say what you really thought of it." The implication was clear: Pinter has put himself beyond blame. I suffer from no such inhibition, but have no need to struggle with myself either. I was bowled over by the evening.

The Room is beautifully acted and directed. It is an almost perfect play, and its originality does not date. Perhaps this is, in part, because Pinter's plays are not polemical. He writes about people and their deficiencies. He is not primarily interested in trying to illuminate a period in time. There is no such thing as "ordinary" in Pinter. He shows us how strange even the most "normal" moments are. His plays are full of people who do not know themselves. They are not in control of their language, but Pinter is. He seems to be a realist, but is nothing of the kind, his language betraying more than the speaker could ever have intended. Over and again, he walks into the dark. No one writes like him - though not for want of trying.

This is not to imply that The Room is not of its time. On the contrary, the designer Eileen Diss invites us into a 1950s room, grey and sepia, that is rather like the inside of a teapot. Rose (Lindsay Duncan on first-rate form) keeps talking to her speechless husband, Bert (Steven Pacey), as he shovels bacon into his mouth. But he turns down all her servings of conversation: fear of cold weather, the "news" that it is getting dark, anxiety about the tenant in the basement. Rose praises the room itself. It is a room, she keeps saying, in which "you stand a chance". But not much of a chance, for this is the story of a haunted house.

The landlord, Mr Kidd (Henry Woolf, who directed the first production of The Room, compellingly recreates the part he played then), has a face like a smiling pumice stone. Even his clothes look unhealthy - he stands about in an off-colour cardigan making dismal pleasantries. Mr and Mrs Sands, hoping to rent a room, show up. Mr Sands (played to thuggish perfection by Keith Allen) is a jumpily disagreeable bloke, in a pristine sheepskin coat, with an intemperate wish to know best about everything. He and his wife (Lia Williams, not fully in charge of her cockney accent) let it be known that "the room" is shortly to become vacant. It is a destabilising piece of news. But it is the arrival of Riley, the black, blind man from the basement (a most arresting performance from George Harris), that provides the extraordinary climax to the play. How does Riley know Rose? Why does she say she doesn't know him? And why does he call her "Sal"? Into this name, he pours love, sorrow, reproach. And what's the reason for her transformation from anger to tenderness? When Rose feels the contours of Riley's face, it is as if she, not he, were blind - a kind of prophecy, as the last line of the play makes clear. The Room is moving, funny, sinister and mysterious - classic Pinter.

Celebration is set in a restaurant. There has been a huge improvement in the standard of living between the first play and the last. Damask table cloths, tall glasses and glittering bottles are on display. Rose would not last a second in such a place. The immediate impression - seized in a second as if one were walking into the restaurant oneself - is of vitality, vulgarity and ease. The language is coarse, scintillating and free. "Osso buco" is introduced early on, as a curse (you need to pronounce "buco" with especial venom). But this is as nothing to the insults soon traded between the party "celebrating" a wedding anniversary. If it isn't their last supper, it ought to be - for these people loathe one another. The staging is superb: the diners make a marvellously gruesome line-up - Max Ernst would have had a field day painting their faces. Andy de la Tour is especially riveting. He looks as though he has a permanent bad smell under his nose.

The weakest dialogue belongs to the table-for-two where Suki (a dazzling Lia Williams) and Russell (Steven Pacey) take each other apart. She says she wants him to be rich so that he will buy her "houses and panties" (an unconvincing line). She reminisces vengefully about being a "plump young secretary" and having it off behind filing cabinets. She is a kind of siren/buffoon, and their talk is an ugly strip cartoon - with all the limitations that that entails.

During their first exchange, at the very beginning of Celebration, I feared that the restaurant could never compete with the room. But I quickly changed my mind. There is always the danger, in Pinter's later plays, that he will sound as if he is parodying himself. But the music and tempo of Celebration are different to that of the first play. It is more overtly cruel, more extrovert, much faster. It has more panache than pathos. But it is clearly by the same hand, and Pinter's mastery of the non sequitur is still intact. As Sonia (Indira Varma), the maItresse of the restaurant, hilariously explains: "My mother was a chiropodist. Are you going to try our bread and butter pudding?" This is no ordinary restaurant. The staff are, comically, more civilised than the punters.

The two plays are marvellous companion pieces. In each, there is a key figure who cuts through the play like a knife. It is the young waiter, marvellously played by Danny Dyer, who upsets Celebration - just as the blind man shakes The Room to its foundations. The waiter is always interrupting diners to tell fantastic stories about his well-connected grandfather. It's all fantasy - and most entertaining. Until the end, when all the diners have left. And then - like the sun going down at speed - there is the sudden, unmistakably Pinteresque sense of life as stranger than it had seemed, more tragic and unpalatable.

Celebration and The Room are at the Almeida Theatre in London (020-7359 4404) until 29 April

This article first appeared in Englishness: who cares?

2000-04-03