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Theatre Reviews Review: Little Menace: Pinter Plays is a great showcase for Soulpepper: The Next Generation

Alex McCooeye, left, Gregory Prest, centre, and Maev Beaty in Little Menace: Pinter Plays.

Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Soulpepper

  • Title: Little Menace: Pinter Plays
  • Written by: Harold Pinter
  • Genre: Comedies of menace
  • Director: Thomas Moschopoulos
  • Actors: Maev Beaty, Diego Matamoros, Alex McCooeye and Gregory Prest
  • Company: Soulpepper Theatre Company
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to March 10

rating

If Harold Pinter is a rock star to you (as he is to me), then Little Menace: Pinter Plays, on at Soulpepper, will bring you all the pleasure of stumbling upon an album of B-sides and rarities that completes your collection in a record store.

Visiting Greek director Thomas Moschopoulos has assembled 10 of the British playwright’s infrequently staged short plays and revue sketches here – and if a few seem like mere puffs of Pinter, enough provide pint-sized punches of his trademark comic menace to make for an invigorating evening.

The scenes selected span the Nobel Prize winner’s whole career. Some like Trouble in the Works and Last to Go were first staged all the way back in 1959, a year after Pinter’s reputation budded in memorable fashion when The Birthday Party flopped but made a sensation in London.

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Others such as Press Conference and Apart from That date from the early years of the 21st century and the final years of Pinter’s life.

The scenes selected in Little Menace: Pinter Plays span the Harold Pinter's whole career.

Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Soulpepper

Back in its own early days, Soulpepper would produce a play by Pinter every two seasons or so in Toronto – but Little Menace is the first time the company has tackled his work since he died in 2008 at age 78.

Starring three younger company members added in the interim – Maev Beaty, Alex McCooeye and Gregory Prest – alongside founding member Diego Matamoros, the show really feels like a passing of the baton, or Soulpepper: The Next Generation. It certainly demonstrated the theatre’s ensemble can still do the canonical playwrights as brilliantly as ever.

In Victoria Station (1982), one of the meatier playlets, a taxi dispatcher (Matamoros) finds himself dealing with a cabbie (McCooeye) who seems not to know where in London he is. This veers from funny to frightening fast – and these two actors play it out perfectly with pauses so heavily pregnant a doctor would have to induce.

Another Pinter gem you’ll likely never have a chance to see on stage again is The Basement, a script filmed for BBC television based on an unproduced film script in 1967. It’s like a greatest-hits medley (snatches of The Caretaker, The Homecoming & Betrayal) condensed down to 15 disorienting minutes – starting with an unexpected visit that quickly seems like an occupation, and turning into a love triangle with equilateral betrayal.

McCooeye, Prest and Beaty play two men and a “girl” who engage in a romantic power struggle in a basement flat that is redecorated from scene to scene; Matamoros seems to play the playwright himself – speaking all the exterior and interior settings and character descriptions.

There’s a certain surface out-of-date factor to Pinter – the elliptical machismo of his writing, feline female characters viewed through a hazy male gaze – but, in The Basement, Moschopoulos shows how easily that can be upended into timeliness by being directed with a little ironic distance. As the girl, Beaty comments on the seeming sexism of the part by playing her as a self-aware cipher; it’s a brilliant little piece of acting.

Indeed, Beaty brings her A-game throughout, as do Matamoros (who excels at menace) and McCooeye (who kills the comedy at every opportunity).

There’s two seemingly contradictory views of Pinter’s dialogue: That he was a poetic dramatist, and that he had a tape-recorder ear. (Then there are the detractors that say that, in his late overtly political plays, he had a tin ear.)

Back in its own early days, Soulpepper would produce a play by Pinter every two seasons or so in Toronto – but Little Menace is the first time the company has tackled his work since he died in 2008 at age 78.

Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Soulpepper

Moschopoulos treats his shorts not as mysteries for a director and cast to solve, but as games to be played with myriad outcomes possible. Indeed, he includes Pinter’s short dialogue Apart from That (2006) four and a half times over the course of the evening to show us this; it’s a casual catch-up conversation between two characters professing that all is well “apart from that” – the “that” never being clarified – and we see how it can have vastly different meanings in different contexts.

New World Order (1991) appears twice as well – with two apparent torturers (Prest and McCooeye) talking over what they’re going to do to a victim in front of him. Both times, however, there’s an overemphasized jokiness and the political scene feels diluted into a double act.

It’s the rare miss of the evening that otherwise feels unencumbered by received notions about how Pinter should be played. Contributing to overall freshness of the affair is Shannon Lea Doyle’s open, but cluttered set design – which seems absurd at first glance. She’s built an obstacle course of deconstructed rooms, implied walls and empty frames that seems totally at odds with a playwright known for his claustrophobic atmospheres.

But the design (including great narrative lighting by Simon Rossiter) surprises regularly – and eventually, you realize: Ah, yes, here is Pinter, truly outside of the box.

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