Theatre review: Old Times at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Kristin Scott Thomas as Anna, Lia Williams as Kate and Rufus Sewell as Deeley in Old Times. Picture: Simon Annand

It’s one of the most awkward positions you can find yourself in – being the odd one out in a group of three.

And that’s the relationship explored in Harold Pinter‘s play Old Times, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Lia Williams and Rufus Sewell and currently playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Scott Thomas and Williams alternate the roles of Kate and Anna, and the production I saw had Scott Thomas as Anna and Williams as Kate.

Kate and her husband Deeley (Sewell) open the play discussing an old friend of Kate‘s who is coming to visit – a friend Kate hasn’t seen in 20 years. The dynamic between the couple is fun and teasing, although there is an undercurrent of something that hides in Kate’s face as Deeley questions her about her relationship with Anna (her “only friend“).

Then in comes Anna – dynamic, full of laughter and memories about the pair’s time together as secretaries in London, getting up for work after glamourous nights out, weekends filled with going to this show and that coffee bar and to see this film.

Williams as Kate and Sewell as Deeley. Picture: Simon Annand

And so the dynamic on stage changes, as Anna and Deeley try to outdo each other’s stories of old times with Kate in an attempt to become her favourite. Deeley’s tale of seeing Kate for the first time at a film, and Anna’s tale of seeing the same film with Kate aren’t very exciting, but the two characters ham them up with shouted words, dramatic pauses and facial expressions and gestures in an attempt to make their memory of Kate seem the best.

Meanwhile Kate sits and listens, looking increasingly uncomfortable as it becomes obvious that her relationship with Anna was something deeper than friends. At one point Kate accuses Anna of talking about her as if she was dead – an apt observation since for a large part of the play Kate, while being the subject of discussion and the point which Anna and Deeley flit around on stage, is actually a character who seems to do nothing much but react, and even then in an awkward, bland way.

Scott Thomas is compelling as Anna. Her every action, even when the focus is on others, belies that there is more to her relationship with Kate than Deeley knows – particularly poignant is a moment when Anna is clearly reaching for Kate’s hand, only to be rejected and see Kate go to Deeley instead. And when she and Deeley are alone together, Scott Thomas reveals another side to Anna, a different Anna than the one she is with both Deeley and Kate, and with just Kate.

Sewell brings both tragedy and comedy to Deeley – a man with a successful career, a house in the country and a wife he seems to love. But as it is revealed that he knows less about her than Anna does, we stop laughing at his over-the-top gestures and booming voice, and start feeling sorry for him as we watch him break down – the last person to believe what he is seeing in front of his eyes.

Sewell as Deeley and Scott Thomas as Anna. Picture: Simon Annand

Williams as Kate has arguably the hardest job in the production. For all the attention paid to Kate by Anna and Deeley, it could be difficult to believe that what either of them are saying about Kate is true – we don’t see the fun-loving young woman she once was when she was living with Anna, or the shy girl that Deeley fell in love with. Instead we see a quiet, private woman, one who seems to be a shadow of the woman Deeley and Anna speak about. It would be easy for Kate to become a boring character, but the expressions that fly across Williams’ face – from despair to longing to fear to sadness to (briefly) happiness – make her compelling to watch, as does her body language, which is largely tense, even when she is playing relaxed.

Old Times makes for uncomfortable watching, but only because we feel for all the characters, and because we all have had some experience being the odd one out and wanting someone’s approval over another person. Thought-provoking and beautifully nuanced, Pinter’s play will leave you hooked on the mystery of what you’ve just seen.

Old Times is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, London, until April 6. Click here for more information.

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