A Slight Ache & The Lover


A Slight Ache & The Lover

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Metro Arts

March 8 – 19 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

If the problem can be solved why worry? If the problem cannot be solved worrying will do you no good.

– Santideva


Who are you?

– Edward, A Slight Ache, Harold Pinter

RICHARD Is your lover coming today?


… It’s the husband asking and it’s the husband who returns at three, as the leather jacket clad lover, for a little bit of afternoon delight. We realise that this English middle class married couple, in an effort to spice up their love life, enjoy some regular role play, and in-role erotic games of cat and mouse in the parlour, frequently ending up under the table. I vaguely worry that a vase of fresh flowers on the tabletop above them will come crashing to the floor during a fit of cloth-concealed passion. But there is something very reserved about their fantasies. Everything left to the imagination. And certainly nothing broken. Imagine! There’s something generally very reserved about the couple and despite Kerith Atkinson’s beautifully prepared 1950s housewife contrasting nicely with her whore, I don’t feel convinced that Danny Murphy is the ideal husband and lover for her, which makes it impossible to believe the relationship. I should be swept up in the couple’s absurd antics, and a little shocked and delighted by their coping mechanisms, and I’m not.

Everything is funny; the greatest earnestness is funny; even tragedy is funny. And I think what I try to do in my plays is to get this recognisable reality of the absurdity of what we do and how we behave and how we speak.

– Harold Pinter

It’s very clear that Pinter admired women, and saw that society, in general, too often does not. Or didn’t in 1963 when The Lover was written, originally for TV. In The Lover, Pinter shows us that women can successfully fill multiple roles and men – this man at least – cannot. After a time, Richard becomes frustrated, tired and confused, and simply wants, once again, to come home to a wife, not a whore or a mistress. (He goes to great lengths to explain the differences between them. It’s very simple, really).

SARAH I must say I find your attitude to women rather alarming.

RICHARD Why? I wasn’t looking for your double, was I? I wasn’t looking for a woman I could respect, as you, whom I could admire and love, as I do you. Was I? All I wanted was…how shall I put it…someone who could express and engender lust with all lust’s cunning. Nothing more.

Like Albee’s earliest plays, Pinter’s early work sits on the Absurd shelf, right by Realism, with its uncanny insight into human paranoia, projection, dissatisfaction and assumption. Yes, it’s Realism, but not as we know it.   


An African drum ritual is appropriately odd (but not). It precedes a flashback to another time, another place, another rendezvous… The beat starts slowly, quietly, intensely before quickening; they both play – she scratches the skin with her nails – and it’s strange, unsettling, and hilarious. I’m not sure it should be quite so amusing. Pinter’s comedy is subtle, tucked away into the dark corners of his Realism, but Director Kate Wild has teased it out into the open, like a daydream, giving her actors some opportunities to play. But I’m unconvinced and this production is frequently funny because the chemistry between Atkins and Murphy is so awkward… Of course, others consider it the perfect casting, which is fine. And intriguing.          


Why do you think the conversations in your plays are so effective? 


I don’t know. I think possibly it’s because people fall back on anything they can lay their hands on verbally to keep away from the danger of knowing, and of being known. 

Zac Boulton – the milkman, John – appears at the door with the milk, although it’s clearly cream he’d like the housewife to take. He’s quite persistent! It’s a distraction, and one we can’t help but imagine she’ll go for, but no; it’s Pinter, not a Hollywood team of writers, and she remains faithful to her husband, her lover.


Is there more than one way to direct your plays successfully? 


Oh, yes, but always around the same central truth of the play—if that’s distorted, then it’s bad. The main difference in interpretation comes from the actors. The director can certainly be responsible for a disaster, too…

Zac Boulton is the mysterious Matchseller in A Slight Ache (written originally as a radio play and adapted for the stage); it’s Boulton’s most disciplined performance to date, without dialogue yet demanding intense focus. There is very little movement involved but his deflated, decrepit posture and noisy shuffling is a perfect capture of sadness, and his shaking is the whole world imploding. Of course we have to wonder if he’s real, or if he might be a figment of Edward’s imagination. Murphy is far better suited to this role and brings to it a measure of consideration, calculation and inner terror that prompts us to consider our own imminent death. His perspective on the wasp’s purpose in the world, and his rather cold treatment of it in the opening scene serves as a neat summary of the themes in the play. (He traps it in the marmalade pot, while the wife watches on, alarmed and grateful to her husband and protector for keeping them out of danger. Because so much danger in their hum-drum lives).

No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.

– Gautama Buddha

Pinter demands that we consider our mortality and our identity by drawing attention to the mundanity and imagined menace of the every day. Murphy’s Edward is suitably suspicious and increasingly terrified of the Matchseller, an imposter, eventually rising and filling the role that Edward relinquishes. Of his two roles in this double bill, Edward is the character that Murphy embodies and delivers in the most affecting way. And by the end, when he is crazed and confused and drained of all life force, we feel more for him then for Flora, who doesn’t miss her husband and protector because either he is replaced by the Matchseller or he has become the Matchseller. We’re never really certain but I decide that he has become the man, who becomes younger and stronger as Flora’s attention is lavished upon him. As Flora, Atkinson offers on a silver platter, vivid descriptions of her well-kept garden, and the oddly seductive imagery of the final interior scenes; she’s a 1950s housewife after Salome.


Wild has assembled a creative team (including Costume Designer Penelope Challen & Lighting Designer Christine Felmingham), to take the muted colours and larger pieces of a comfortable middle class life – a table, a sofa, a hat stand, a chair – out of their natural surrounds and position them on stage beneath gentle light and within a soundtrack of too-cute tunes. As much as we enjoy the music though, scene transitions (the passing of time, the changing of clothes) needn’t take an entire track… Atkinson’s wardrobe is noteworthy, the very essence of classic Chanel meets contemporary Marc Cain (The Lover) and Burberry (A Slight Ache). 

It’s rare to see Pinter done well so if it’s your bag, baby, see this double bill before it finishes on Friday.

Excerpts from The Paris Review

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