Lloyd Evans

Great expectations | 21 March 2019

Plus: Admissions is the smartest, bravest, crunchiest play the West End has seen in ages

Great expectations | 21 March 2019
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Harold Pinter Theatre, until 1 June


Trafalgar Studios, until 25 May

No menace, no Venice. This new production of Pinter’s Betrayal is set on a bare stage with scant regard for the play’s physical requirements. The script specifies a handful of furnished locations: a pub, a study, a flat, a hotel bedroom, a living room. But instead we get an off-white void where three youngish actors prowl in circles, ogling each other.

This is Pinter’s finest work, a tense romantic tragedy with flashes of comic fireworks, and it differs from the rest of his output by revealing its themes directly to the audience, by delivering an intelligible plot full of suspense and surprises, by focusing relentlessly on the human duel at its core, and by never relapsing into obscurities or screeds of reminiscence spoken by dotty vagabonds. Every syllable contributes to the whole, and a successful version can throw a spell over an audience like a session of hypnosis.

The casting in Jamie Lloyd’s production is less than ideal. Charlie Cox, with his choirboy cheeks and starter beard, seems far too nice to play the hotshot literary agent Jerry, who casually seduces other men’s wives while brokering movie deals in London and New York. He looks like an oboe teacher. Robert is played by Tom Hiddleston whose abiding characteristic, as usual, is a pained vacancy. He has the air of Errol Flynn’s not-so-handsome cousin hired to do a spot of modelling. He saunters through the role with his limbs nicely displayed in expensive togs but he can’t find the outrage, the boiling hurt, the stifled aggression of the dethroned lover. He even misses the right notes in the famous confession scene (‘the Italians… in their laughing Mediterranean way’) where his wife admits to years of infidelity. This is Pinter’s writing at its most exquisite, but Hiddleston delivers the lines in a tone of injured puzzlement as if recalling an iffy penalty decision during Arsenal’s last away game.

The denuded set is horribly unhelpful here. ‘Hotel room. Venice’ says the script. ‘Emma on bed, reading’. The bed matters, naturally, but in this version Emma is perched on a rickety chair borrowed, it seems, from a failing bistro. The scene is about ‘the bed’. It needs a bed. Chairs aren’t beds. The effect is made worse by clumsy head-on lighting that throws the actors’ silhouettes on to the rear-wall and leaves them upstaged, literally, by their own shadows. That said, I enjoyed this production because the story, the psychological intricacies and the wonky back-to-front structure are always a source of pleasure. Zawe Ashton, better than her co-stars, gives Emma a simple sexiness and warmth.

And yet I fear I was alone in relishing the show. The fretful crowd fussed and shifted a great deal in their seats, as if barely understanding the vicious subtleties unfolding before them.

Admissions by Joshua Harmon is a formulaic drama. But what a formula. He asks us what we would do if our pet political cause became a family disaster. Support the cause or the family? The setting is an upper-class school in New England, and we meet Sherri, a liberal admissions tutor, who prides herself on attracting a large ratio of ethnic-minority students. Her son, Charlie, aged 17, has just received a ‘no’ from Yale and he blames his rejection on his lack of attributes that would qualify him as ‘oppressed’. Sherri has to appease her furious son while staying true to her professional ideals.

This intriguing opening leads to a sublime five-minute speech in which Charlie savages the topsy-turvy morality that rates a rich African diplomat ‘disadvantaged’ and a white factory hand ‘privileged’. The second half gets better as Charlie goes very slightly, and rather brilliantly, nuts. Instead of rejecting Mom’s liberalism he embraces it by suggesting that he forego university altogether and use the family nest egg to establish a bursary for the benefit of a black student. The sum involved, by the way, is a quarter of a million dollars. Mom can hardly decline this proposal without appearing to be hypocritical or, worse still, racially bigoted.

This central storyline is offset by a sub-plot concerning the distribution of black faces in the school brochure, which is horribly and squirmingly funny. Daniel Aukin’s production rivets the audience from the opening seconds. Alex Kingston (Sherri) gives a fascinating account of agonised motherhood. Ben Edelman, as Charlie, is so intensely committed to the role that at times he seemed to be at risk of exploding. This is the smartest, bravest, crunchiest, wordiest, zingiest play the West End has seen in ages. If you can’t get a ticket, don’t kill anyone but at least consider blackmail.