Interview: James Haddrell & Greenwich Theatre’s Pinter Duo

Opening at Greenwich Theatre, Cutty Sark, from 12 May 3 June, the venue’s artistic director, James Haddrell brings a double bill of Harold Pinter’s dark comedies.

James stopped by for a chat about the productions, the venue, and the current state of the theatre scene.

Ticket link:

Rehearsal photo for The Dumb Waiter

Great to see a Pinter double-bill back the London stage. Why these particular titles?

I have wanted to stage The Dumb Waiter for a long time. It’s one of those plays that stays with you when you read it or see it produced – although at first you might think it’s a sketch with a brilliant twist it’s actually so much more, and the ideas of power, inequality and friendship build and build the more you think about it.

At the same time, we’ve had some notable success at Greenwich with evenings of multiple plays – Bad Nights & Odd Days was a collection of four Caryl Churchill plays, and Alarms & Excursions featured eight short plays by Michael Frayn.

There’s something exciting for an audience about seeing more than one piece, particularly when some of them are not often staged.

The full line-up of Alarms & Excursions is not often tackled, and in the case of Churchill, two of the four pieces that we produced had been written for radio. With that in mind, I went looking for a partner piece to The Dumb Waiter, and A Slight Ache was a natural fit.

On the surface, it could not be more different. A Slight Ache is about the ‘haves’ and The Dumb Waiter is about the ‘have-nots’. A Slight Ache is a surreal study of existential breakdown written for radio, and The Dumb Waiter is a dingy tale about two hitmen waiting for their next job to arrive. A Slight Ache is a time-bending collision of a lifetime revisited in a day, while The Dumb Waiter plays out in real time.

However, they are both classic examples of what we say, what we don’t say and what we really mean, of the demands that society and its hierarchies force upon us wherever we sit in that structure, of the power that exists in silence, and of Pinter’s utter command of theatricality – from the echoes of Waiting For Godot in The Dumb Waiter to the virtuoso and utterly unexpected twist at the end of A Slight Ache.

Pinter once said he couldn’t define ‘Pinteresque’ in his work. What attracts you to his work and which plays stand out to you?

The starting point, cliché though it may be, has to be the pauses – but obviously they’re not just a theatrical device to create a rhythm. Pinter has an astonishing ability to identify the moments where we are left stranded between two ideas, where we fail to connect with another person, where our fears come closest to the surface before being hidden away again.

There is also a fierce objection to inequality in his work that resonates with me. It is impossible to pick favourites, but as well as the two pieces we are producing now, I remember powerful productions of The Caretaker with Malcolm Storey and The Homecoming with Keith Allen.

Rehearsal photo for A Slight Ache

Both The Dumb Waiter and A Slight Ache are blackly comic with a hint of menace. Is there a fine line to tread when staging these to get the balance right?

Yes I think so, though that balance is very different in the two plays. The Dumb Waiter is clearly about two murderers but it owes as much to the classic comedy double acts as it does to film noir, it’s part Beckett and part Kafka but the comedy is very close to the surface.

In A Slight Ache, a comedy of manners is played out with two privileged, upper-class people failing to understand or connect with a vagrant or even to really see him.

For us though, we have looked beyond the surface of both pieces to present the friendship and mutual dependence of Ben and Gus in The Dumb Waiter, and to advocate for the couple who are trapped in a prison of social expectation in A Slight Ache. I hope audiences follow us in shifting the balance of both pieces just a bit…

How have you and your trio of actors gone about developing this double-bill? Are any of you completely new to the Pinter universe?

I have a particular way of working, always blocking shows very early in the rehearsal process so that actors feel that they have a show under their belt and can then relax into character work and, in this case, understanding what’s going on under the surface and in the silence.

We have done a lot of work on A Slight Ache to advocate for the couple and not allow it to become a two-dimensional attack on social privilege, and for The Dumb Waiter we have worked to identify the moments of connection between the two men – as well as making sure it’s funny.

We have also split most rehearsal days in half, so the two plays are rehearsed entirely in parallel. That has helped us to identify the similarities and to better understand one universe seen from two very different perspectives.

Tony Mooney, who plays Ben in The Dumb Waiter, has actually played the role before – 20 years ago at The Grange Arts Centre in Oldham he staged the show with current Emmerdale star Will Ash, producing it themselves with support from Will’s school drama teacher.

However, that’s his only experience of Pinter, and neither Kerrie Taylor nor Jude Akuwudike have performed the playwright’s work before, though Kerrie remembers seeing Michael Gambon in No Man’s Land years ago.

Kerrie Taylor adds:

“I couldn’t work out if I loved or hated it – I knew I didn’t understand it but was fascinated by the idea that I still wanted to. I wanted to dive into it, feeling that if I made it back to the surface I would have found something truly remarkable. That’s my only previous brush with Pinter.”

“When James told me he was doing these plays I went straight home to read A Slight Ache & had the same reaction. I thought ‘this is totally weird – I have no idea what’s going on’ but I wanted to. I messaged James and asked to be involved because I wanted to dive in and have time with a play where I’d no idea what the rules of its universe were.”

“It’s been fascinating spending weeks doing what comes naturally – trying to make sense of what we are seeing – and to be refused the gratification of certainty. So you keep on, going back and back and back and realising that’s the point.”

“Moments of clarity pop through and moments of poetry that you really connect to on a fundamental level. Perhaps more so because you are not allowed to settle on one definition of what’s happening. Does that make sense? I wanted to become a Pinter fan – and I have!”

Rehearsal photo for The Dumb Waiter

Greenwich Theatre is an important part of the Off-West End fringe in London. What are your plans going forward and why should audiences make the trip to visit?

Greenwich Theatre occupies an important place in the national theatre ecology – a mid-scale venue, in the capital, where emerging companies can test their work on a larger stage, step up from the fringe and see if their work can survive, while not taking huge financial risks in the process.

As we continue to rebalance and develop after the pandemic, we are committed to continuing in that vein, supporting some of the country’s most exciting new theatre-makers and sharing their work with a growing audience. At the same time, we are working to re-establish our identity as an important producer of in-house work.

Our history has featured performances by the likes of Rupert Everett, Kenneth Branagh, Mia Farrow, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Charles Dance – the list goes on – and many very early in their careers. That identity was lost in the late nineties with a major funding loss and short-term closure, but it is on the rise again.

For me, audiences have the opportunity at Greenwich to see high-quality drama with astonishing casts at affordable prices or to catch some of the most exciting voices of tomorrow at an early stage – or both.

Do you think the theatre scene is generally healthy at the moment? Could anything adapt or change to make it better?

I think the biggest challenge facing the theatre scene at the moment is the unpredictability of audiences in the wake of the pandemic.

Many shows are selling well, venues and companies are regaining their audiences – albeit slowly and having made huge losses in the meantime – and the appetite for live entertainment is alive and well.

However, booking patterns have dramatically changed. In many cases, particularly for venues that did not already have a reputation for selling out, audiences are booking just days before a show.

People became so used to last minute cancellations, to illness, to the unpredictability of legislation, and then as we emerged from the final lockdown we were faced by extreme weather, train strikes – everything seemed to be stacked against the idea of forward planning.

Making decisions on the day became the norm – and of course, that often means last-minute changes of plan and an incredible challenge for venues with little indication of what sales might be like for any particular show. And then, of course, the cost of living crisis struck, and the impact of that on smaller theatres is very significant.

In the West End, where a theatre trip for many audience members may be an annual treat, that treat is still an achievable goal that they can save up for over the year. Smaller theatres are far more reliant on repeat visitors, and the financial capacity for people to go to see a show every month has been put under major pressure.

I do think we’ll find our way back to old behaviours but it is going to take some time, so while we are still facing these challenges the best thing that venues can do is to keep their ticket prices as low as possible, and to publish their exchange and refund policies – and make them lenient – in order to encourage the idea that advance booking is a secure option.

If we are going to weather this storm, it is not only about how many people come to our theatres, but when they book.

Image credit: James Haddrell