Harold Pinter’s refusal to tie his plays to a specific time or place makes them ideal for repeated resuscitation as script-long metaphors for the most recent human rights’ abuses to fill our headlines. Their battering of the mundane into dark and twisted shapes reveals the desperation and casual horror of human nature. However, such a distinctive style can lapse into cliché, with one too many productions of The Birthday Party or The Homecoming dulling its edge. Fortunately, this isn’t an issue with The Print Room and Young Vic’s joint revival of One for the Road and Victoria Station, directed with assuredness by Jeff James. Not performed together since their premiere in 1984, this double-bill of short plays benefits from not having been left to fade under innumerable stage lights.
Victoria Station, the first and shorter of the two, begins with a simple premise – a taxi driver has forgotten where one of London’s busiest train terminals is – and evolves into something funny, poignant and increasingly sinister. Pinter’s merciless grasp of the absurdities of everyday conversation is on full show here. Keith Dunphy is excellent as the Controller, his voice cracking with frustration as he tries to establish exactly where a confused and lonely No. 274 (Kevin Doyle) is in order to give him a booking. As the two men circle each other in a spiral of miscommunication, the answer takes on a life-or-death quality.
In the second play, One for the Road, the wrong response really does have mortal consequences. In an anonymous government building in an unnamed country, a disoriented Victor (Dunphy) is being interrogated by Nicolas – played by Doyle with an easy manner and the smile of a shark – about his dissidence from the state. Although we see no violence on stage, brutality fills the air as Nicolas slashes and cuts with his words. Continually asking Victor if they’re friends while calling his son “a little prick” and intimating that his wife has been gang-raped by soldiers, he pulls the man’s life apart with the leisurely fascination of someone ripping the wings from a fly.
Maintaining the two-man cast between the plays but swapping their roles casts a baleful light across both. It forcefully brings home the escalating relationship between insecurity and oppression that links the Controller’s need to make Driver do what he wants to Nicolas’s ruination of Victor on behalf of a regime. This is helped by Alex Lowde’s hauntingly sparse set for Victoria Station – two lamp-lit desks with an engine dumped innards-like in front of one, to represent the taxi – which manages to create a sense of utter isolation. The men’s tenuous connection, their unhealthy interdependence and vulnerability, is present in every tinny crackle of radio when they speak to each other. We may laugh when, in a burst of annoyance, the Controller declares that God gave him his job, but we don’t when Nicolas says the same thing.
Of the two plays, the least explicitly political is the most effective. One for the Road is hampered by a need to show too much: bringing on Victor’s son and wife towards the end disrupts the pace and takes away from the carefully cultivated atmosphere of paranoia and menace that grows with such effective inference during the initial interrogation. But, ultimately, this doesn’t detract from a powerfully unsettling hour of theatre. Directed with taut restraint by James and anchored by Dunphy and Doyle, who avoid histrionics and shouting in favour of quiet despair and gimlet-eyed certainty, this double-bill shows how much Pinter still has to say when in the right hands. After seeing it, you may well need one for the road.
One For The Road and Victora Station will be at the Print Room until 1st October before transferring to the Young Vic from the 6th – 15th October 2011. For tickets and further information, visit the Young Vic website.
Read director Jeff James’ thoughts on Pinter’s political anger.