Camden Fringe 2010
Unknown to a great many of his fans, Harold Pinter wrote a selection of sketches throughout his long career, as well as his now-classic and well-received full length theatre productions. These, dancing between the hilarious and dark, are an interesting insight into the mind of one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, although not all are quite as high quality as the work he is rightly more famous for. Still, there has been a recent revival of these little pieces, famously done by Bill Bailey (and friends) in 2007 as Pinter’s People and now again by Highly Strung Theatre as part of this year’s Camden Fringe. Their gung-ho and quirky approach to these sketches often works wonderfully, showcasing their abilities as sketch performers, although not all of these sketches are meant to be played for laughs, and thus occasionally fall a little flat.
The sketches in Pinter’s People are generally difficult to classify: they all feature a quirky understanding of people and situations, but beyond that are hard to define: some revel in nonsense language, others in situational comedy, others in the way we discuss the most difficult of topics… There is little tying them together beyond the playwright and his legendary way with language. As such, presenting them all together like this relies on the company to find a way to make them cohesive and entertaining: a full show instead of a collection of vignettes.
Highly Strung do an excellent job in creating this sense of cohesion: their unified, bouncy and surreal sketch performance style lends itself to this kind of material well, and nine times out of ten they did an excellent job at keeping us all entertained. Each member of the cast has their own style and abilities, and were mostly well-cast in sketches that allowed them to play with the material within their own characters. All in all, this was an exceptionally accomplished production: upbeat music kept the energy going between sketches, the performer’s interaction and solo work was always enjoyable, and a sense of fun was pervasive throughout.
However, one cannot help but feel that they began from a flawed starting point: not all of Pinter’s sketches are funny in themselves. Bill Bailey’s production in 2007 fell down at this point already, so why did this company feel a need to try and do it all over again? In a couple of cases, their innate abilities and some excellent comedy direction meant that some of the harsher sketches worked excellently as comedy fodder, but every now and again a moment of dark aggression or weirdness entered a space that had been defined throughout as an arena of pure laughter: what could have been played seriously was played for laughs and fell flat. This was relatively rare, but these moments were pretty uncomfortable.
This is a very talented troupe, and I’d recommend them whole-heartedly: these guys (some particular performers especially) know how to make sketches work, and any sketch show they lay their hands on will definitely be enjoyable. The problem here is more the material: not exactly a poor choice, but not the rip-roaring material Highly Strung could make work very easily will never have been written by Harold Pinter: his talents as a playwright far outweigh his talents as a sketch writer.