WHEREVER you go these days – doctors surgeries, pharmacies, schools, shops, banks … – there are signs saying that zero-tolerance policies exist and that customers mustn’t be rude and abusive to staff. And you can’t even blame Boris for that one, or Brexit. Most of us agree that manners have been diluted and rudeness is king in the post-Covid world, where aggression and impatience seem to have taken over.
There was always menace in the writings of Harold Pinter, who started his theatrical life in repertory in Bournemouth as an actor called David Baron and whose first plays in the late 1950s were full of threats of violence. They might have divided audiences and critics, but how right he was. He once said his plays were about the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.
I didn’t look to see if there was such a beast under the cabinet in Frome Assembly Rooms for Frome Drama’s terrific production of his 2000 play Celebration – but there well might have been. It’s set in a restaurant (supposed to be The Ivy) but here the enterprising company has transformed the assembly rooms into a restaurant where the audience sits at all the tables but two, where the action is. It’s a neat conceit and works effectively, particularly as the waiting staff was a bit dilatory in the drinks service.
In Simon Blacksell’s production, I imagine we are in an Essex town rather than the capital. Brothers and business partners Lambert and Matt are out for dinner with their wives, sisters Julie and Prue. It’s Lambert and Julie’s wedding anniversary. At an adjoining table are Russell and Suki. Suki and Lambert have a long-distant past. On the other side of the pass are restaurant owner Richard, the waiter, and the Maitre D, Sonia.
This brilliant cast brings out every nuance of Pinter’s elusive script. Richard Thomas’s Lambert wallows in sentimentality as he abuses his wife. His every move is a threat, but it’s as though the velvet glove is on the inside, as the threats melt into rough affection. He’s not a man you’d argue with.
Martin Scott is his brother, a different kettle of fish, but just as dangerous. We don’t know how it is they make their money, but we are pretty sure that arms and extortion play their parts.
As their wives, Vanessa Pollock and Donna Barron are true Essex girls, loud, menacing, blowsy, glitzy and enduring all sorts of things to keep their husbands’ money. They say they work in charities.
Next door the insecure and belligerent banker Russell (Julian Thomas) tries to please the long suffering Suki, (Anita Constantine), but reveals his customary desire to kill everyone round him.
Then there is oleaginous Richard (John Palmer) cravenly accepting whatever the customers might throw at him. And Sonia (Bozsi Davis), the determinedly foreign Maitre D with her strange tales of sex and Argentinians.
The star of the night is the waiter, played with perfectly serious restraint by Laurence Parnell. Anxious to tell tales of his extraordinary grandfather, he refers to a panoply of famous characters from the 1930s, 40s and 50s as though they were regulars at the restaurant, with never so much as a blink.
I should confess I am not a lover of Harold Pinter’s works. If they were all more like this, particularly performed by actors who believe there is huge comedy potential in his often weird words, I would change my mind totally.