mon 23/09/2019

The Room: Harold Pinter's 80th birthday celebrated | reviews, news & interviews

The Room: Harold Pinter's 80th birthday celebrated

The Room: Harold Pinter's 80th birthday celebrated

Pinter's first ever play is revived for one reading only

The first production of 'The Room', 1957: Henry Woolf as Mr Kidd is in the middleUniversity of Bristol Theatre Collection

On 10 October, 2010 Harold Pinter would have turned 80. To celebrate, a group of actors gathered in a room to read The Room, his first play, to an invited audience. Among those present was his widow Antonia Fraser.

The play was introduced by Matthew Lloyd, artistic director of the Actors Centre and its in-house performance space, the Tristan Bates Theatre. Given that The Room was written when Pinter was still making his living as an actor it felt appropriate, he explained, that the celebration was being hosted by a venue where actors are able to hone their craft.

The famous Pinteresque menace was born in this Room

The rehearsed reading was directed by Harry Burton, who told the story of The Room’s inspiration: Pinter had once seen Quentin Crisp cooking breakfast for a burly navvy; Crisp gabbled without cease, while the man who had presumably been roughing him up in bed all night sat in passive-aggressive silence. The image set off something in Pinter's imagination.

The play was commissioned, more or less, by Henry Woolf, who was a postgraduate at Bristol when the new drama department was looking for one-act plays. Woolf and Pinter had met at Hackney Downs Grammar School, and bonded over left-wing post-war idealism, intellectual self-improvement and cricket. It was somehow fitting that their love of sport hovered in the atmosphere of the play’s first performance in a converted squash court at Bristol University in May 1957.

At the time Pinter was a freshly married actor, toiling pennilessly on the repertory circuit in Torquay. He had mentioned his idea for a play. “I told a fib,” Woolf once told me, “that I knew a brilliant play, because it wasn’t written yet. The clincher was I said it wouldn’t cost them anything. I said to Harold, ‘Write it. I’ve managed to con them.’ Harold wrote back saying, ‘I can’t write a play in under six months.’ He actually wrote it in two days.” Pinter subsequently sent Woolf every fresh manuscript.

The production went ahead, directed by Woolf, who also acted in it as Mr Kidd, the elderly landlord of a house full of grim 1950s bedsits. Pinter later recalled that at Bristol his friend “wasn’t bad”. In the first professional production, directed by the author at Hampstead in 1960, Pinter’s judgement of his friend’s performance was wonderfully gnomic: “He was a bit in and out,” he told me. When The Room was revived in 2000 at the Almeida as a companion piece to Celebration, which turned out to be Pinter’s final play, Woolf was finally of the right age to play Mr Kidd.

Last night’s rehearsed reading featured Sian Thomas in what is in effect the Quentin Crisp role: a gabbling housewife feeding a grimly silent husband, her horizons are measured out by the four walls of a bedsit periodically visited by random figures from the chilly outdoors who all pose, in their different way, a sense of incipient threat. The famous Pinteresque menace was born in this Room. The audience had to imagine the room. They didn't have to imagine the menace.

Watch a US TV version of The Room starring Linda Hunt, Donald Pleasance, Julian Sands and Annie Lennox


Harry Burton is currently researching and editing an edition of Pinter’s letters for Faber & Faber. The playwright was a reasonably prolific letter-writer, so on the off-chance that you happen to have any correspondence stashed away in a bottom drawer, Burton would like to hear from you.

The Tristan Bates Theatre is soon playing host to a play which would no doubt intrigue Pinter, who was a great student and admirer of Beckett. Krapp, 39, a one-man play by Michael Laurence, arrives from New York where it won the outstanding solo show award at the International Fringe Festival. It riffs on Krapp’s Last Tape through audio tapes, old video and other archival material. The twist is that it scrutinises not the end of life but the end of youth. It opens on 24 November.

Harold wrote saying, ‘I can’t write a play in under six months.’ He actually wrote it in two days

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