One of the most intriguing aspects of radio plays is their creation – the image of actors trapped in a BBC recording box projecting themselves into a setting neither they nor the audience will ever actually see. They attract a weird whimsical nostalgia that makes the craft of making them seem a bit like, I don’t know… fashioning hurdles from wicker or learning to brew your own elderberry wine. If The Archers had been a television series, it would probably have shrivelled quietly and died long ago, but the part of the show’s oddball English charm comes from the fact it’s on the radio. The Archers kind of is Radio 4.
Jamie Lloyd’s staging of Harold Pinter’s A Slight Ache, as part of the final Pinter at the Pinter season, capitalises on the inherently fascinating quality of radio drama by placing the action inside a 50s recording studio, ‘On Air’ light flickering and boxes of gravel at the ready to represent the garden path. It’s clever for two reasons. Firstly because – did I mention this already? – RADIO PLAYS ARE FASCINATING. Doesn’t everyone want to know the coconuts-for-horse-hooves secrets of the foley artist?
Secondly, and more seriously, the one-act play Pinter originally wrote for the airwaves hinges on paranoia and the uncanny. A frightfully upright couple, Flora (Gemma Whelan) and Edward (John Heffernan), are living out their Little Englander existences, their home-as-their-castle surrounded by a sea of exquisitely pruned flowers and manicured lawn. Pressing concerns amount to whether it’s a good day to pop the canopy up in the garden and what (roasted/broiled/braised) item to eat for luncheon. A mysterious match-seller disrupts the peace – or rather, the couple disrupt their own peace by inviting the elderly dishevelled man into their home to start questioning him about what he’s doing standing out in the lane day after day.
Flora and Edward attempt an increasingly frenzied interrogation of the man, including an odd good cop/bad cop routine, but the un-known figure remains silent throughout. And this is where the radio play aspect comes in. The absence of the man from the on-stage action emphasises his silence, making it bigger and creepier which, in turn, makes the couple’s obsession with him stranger still.
A lot of the skill and humour of Pinter is found in the details, the way he chooses just the right vocabulary to suggest an entire backstory of social class, education and, often, snobberies. In A Slight Ache this comes from the garden plants, the bickering over honeysuckle, convolvulus and clematis, a roll call of keeping-up-with-the-Jones horticulture. It’s also used to great effect in the second play of the double bill, The Dumb Waiter.
Ben (Danny Dyer) and Gus (Martin Freeman) are two bored hitmen holed up in a Birmingham safe house awaiting instruction on their next job. Ben reads the gloomy newspaper, Gus frets over getting a shilling for the gas until — swoosh– the dumb waiter on the back wall opens and food orders start coming down from the restaurant above. Gus’s provisions – the only food items they have to send back up – are a shopping list of yesteryear English gastronomy: Lyon’s Red Label tea, Smith’s crisps (salt ‘n’ shake, unspecified), half a pint of milk, a crumpled bag of biccies and a stale Eccles cake. And the shit really hits the fan when an order for scampi arrives.
Like A Slight Ache, The Dumb Waiter is superbly performed and, at many points, snort-like-a-horse funny. Dyer and Freeman deliver the farcical gags brilliantly, but without letting the whole thing unravel into slapstick. Whelan and Heffernan nail cut-glass accents to make Claire Foy proud but never descend fully into caricatures. Both halves of Pinter Seven are very well performed, very good productions of… hmmm… so-so plays. Not the best of Pinter, but certainly not the worst.
Watching them in 2019, both pieces are notably antiquated. Along with the food and plant references, there’s a strange scene where Flora recalls being raped while out riding her pony and mentions of Edward’s interest in the ‘Belgium Congo’. Particularly in the case of Flora’s attack, it’s unclear how these passages are meant to be received and overall it adds to the sense that these plays feel a bit like the ‘curios’ collected by Edward, relics of a time when people handwrote letters to the Daily Telegraph about cricket and, perhaps, regularly listened to radio plays.
A Slight Ache/The Dumb Waiter is on at Harold Pinter Theatre until 23rd February. More info here.