Michael Portillo - Chattering classes

Theatre - Diners and waiters clash in a star-studded reading, writes Michael Portillo

A Reading

This month Harold Pinter accepted his Nobel Prize in Literature, although sadly he was too unwell to attend the ceremony in Stockholm. In London, a group of Britain's best-known actors gave three readings of Celebration (1999), to mark the playwright's receipt of that extraordinary honour.

Hearing the play, you might be forgiven for thinking the Nobel Prize had been conferred on Pinter for snobbery rather than literature. It concerns six ghastly people who go out to dinner in a posh restaurant. They are extremely coarse. In their conversation husbands and wives treat each other rudely. The men swear continuously and loudly. The host keeps reminding his guests how expensive the restaurant is. The women are obsessed with sex. Some of them are disagreeable to the restaurant staff. All the diners have been to the opera or ballet, but they cannot distinguish between the two art forms let alone recall the title of what they have seen.

The author seems to ooze disdain for his characters. He invites us to snigger at these people who have got above their station and ventured into elegant surroundings. As though to emphasise that they are out of their depth, a common waiter (not even the restaurant owner or maItresse d'hotel) pretends to have overheard the diners talking of T S Eliot, or of Hollywood in the 1930s. (Nothing is more unlikely than that these uncouth interlopers would have talked of such elevated matters.) The waiter regales them with fantasies about his grandfather's close acquaintance with the great figures of literature, politics and movie-making during the early part of the 20th century. It is funny partly because it is surreal, in a way that Monty Python and Woody Allen later picked up from Pinter: in our daily experience a waiter does not hold forth in this way.

But the scene makes us laugh because it also cruelly exposes the bemused ignorance of the oiks who are at dinner.

It seems an unlikely piece to have come from the pen of a Hackney Downs grammar school boy. Perhaps the point is that working people sacrifice their dignity when they sell out and seek admission to the culinary temples of the rich.

But if so, how could Pinter himself have retained his self-esteem during an adult lifetime mostly spent in high society?

The cast for the reading was almost beyond belief. Michael Gambon plays Lambert, the man celebrating his anniversary and picking up the tab for his family (which includes sister-in-law Prue, played by Sinead Cusack). At a neighbouring table sits Russell (Jeremy Irons) with his wife Suki (Janie Dee). The restaurant staff are played by Charles Dance (the smooth owner), Joanna Lumley (the maItresse d'hotel with carnal intercourse on the brain) and Stephen Rea, the one spouting about Ernest Hemingway, Sam Goldwyn and Benito Mussolini. With that amount of talent on stage, it was an evening to remember.

The performance was given without any sort of set. The diners sat but they had no table let alone cutlery or glasses. The actors carried large folders containing the script and made no bones about reading from the page. But it was, none the less, an outstanding interpretation. Provided you have no qualms laughing at what Pinter finds funny (I don't, luckily), the play is extremely funny.

In such a star-studded cast it was striking that Gambon completely stole the show by virtue of his stage presence alone. Without moving from his chair, without hand gestures, and often with his face turned to his book, he was magnificent. The voice, intonation and impeccable timing were enough to make his a captivating performance and, unwittingly, to put others in the shade.

Even so, Joanna Lumley also gave a memorable reading. The witty thing about her role, like the waiter's, is that she, too, brings up topics that we would never expect from her character. First she tells us her life history, then she expounds her discovery that it is not only the English who have sex. Belgians and Hungarians do as well, she reveals. Lumley's delivery was deadpan, but with a wiggle and a pout. Wonderful.

The funniest moment in the performance came when Gambon's character answers his mobile phone, abuses the caller, and then curtails the conversation with a resounding yell of "c***!". Four decades after Kenneth Tynan first used the f-word on television, that other four-letter monosyllable is the only one that retains any power to shock. The audience rocked with surprise and then guffawed. The actors were shaking, too. The Gambon group was corpsing, tiny shudders betraying the fact that they had got the giggles too badly to go on.

So that's how you get a Nobel Prize in Literature.

A Reading of Celebration by Harold Pinter was at the Albery Theatre, 1-3 December

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