Forty years after its world premiere, Old Times proved once again that while two may be company, three is definitely a crowd in Ian Rickson’s impeccably stylish production of Harold Pinter’s ambiguous memory play.
With Kristin Scott Thomas, Lia Williams and Rufus Sewell as your cast, elegance comes easy, but their acting class is just the beginning of what they bring to the production, creating an awkward, sexually charged energy that is set to change nightly with the actresses swapping roles in the dreamlike, enigmatic ménage a trois.
On opening night Williams opened proceedings as Kate, the troubled wife of filmmaker Deeley. After old friend Anna arrives for a visit following a 20 year absence, the trio take a trip down memory lane. But the line between fact and fiction soon becomes blurred and the real course of their lives, and in turn the reason for their reunion, becomes less apparent.
Pinter’s work, as always, is a masterclass in conversational writing. As Anna and Deeley compete for the increasingly subdued Kate’s attention, the atmosphere becomes rapidly awkward, gaps in conversation causing panicked looks as their stilted words elicit equally anxious looks from Kate and those classic Pinter pauses simmer with mystery.
Scott Thomas and Sewell’s competitive attempts to draw affection from Williams’ alarmingly emotionless Kate – including a comedy sing-off that puts film Bridesmaids’ famous similar scene to shame – bristle with sexual tension and anger. Sewell plays Deeley with a smug, confident edge, which soon gives way to bouts of violent anger, while Scott Thomas is both girlish and disingenuous; her tales of young London life steeped in desperation and a frantic desire to rouse Kate from her quiet watching on.
Whether we are watching ghosts, three former lovers entwined by a dark secret, a depressed woman fighting her past or any other number of explanations may never be revealed, but Rickson’s production hints at the supernatural with its haunting, unsettlingly still and tension-filled 80 minutes.
What is clear, however, is that if Pinter is a masterclass in writing, the cast are a masterclass in acting and the swapping of roles is no clever gimmick, more an enticing addition to Old Times’ mystery.