The Lover / The Collection review – Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath ★★★☆☆

Photo: Nobby Clark

Directed by Lindsay Posner and appearing at Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio, this double bill combines two of Harold Pinter’s short plays, each originally developed for television in the early 1960s. The Lover and The Collection are a frequent pairing, with West End revivals by Jamie Lloyd in 2018 and 2008 and a run that starred Pinter himself at the Donmar in 1998 as a triple-bill alongside A Kind of Alaska.

They make for a thematically satisfying one-two with both plays revolving around infidelity and the sexual fantasies of those in long-term relationships. In The Lover, a middle-class couple, Richard (the brilliant David Morrissey, on stage for the first time since 2018), a city banker, and his stay-at-home wife, Sarah (Claudie Blakley), discuss the visits of Sarah’s lover. “Did you show him the hollyhocks?” Richard asks, about her lover’s previous visit.

Photo: Nobby Clark

While Sarah has a lover, Richard admits to having a ‘whore,’ as he refers to her, in the city. When the lover arrives it is Richard himself role-playing as the working-class ‘Max,’ while she plays his ‘whore’. As Richard threatens to spoil the fantasy, the power balance is thrown off-kilter, swaying to and fro between the couple. It makes for delicious comedy, underlaid with Pinter’s famous menace, with Morrissey and Blakley carefully balancing the competing tones.

The Collection, meanwhile, sees James (an exceptional Mathew Horne) confronting Bill (Elliot Barnes-Worrell), the junior partner in a relationship with Harry (Morrissey), about an alleged one-night stand Bill had with James’s wife Stella (Blakley). Theatre critic and Pinter biographer, Michael Billington notes in the programme that it was the French philosopher Rene Gerard who coined the phrase ‘triangular desire’ to describe two men drawn together by the urge to sleep with the same woman.

However, Girard’s idea that a person’s desire is only an imitation of another’s desire seems to more accurately reflect the relationship between Stella and James in Posner’s production, with Stella’s alleged desire for Bill causing James to desire Bill himself – something Bill willingly entertains. Like The Lover, the power dynamics shift to and fro as the story about what happened between Bill and Stella at a dressmakers conference repeatedly changes.

Photo: Nobby Clark

Pinter’s comedy and menace are there again but they feel muted in The Collection, with the production struggling to find the danger in the situation and James’s seeming disinterest in his relationship with his wife (until the play’s final moment) lowering the stakes. All of which takes the heat out of Harry’s famous ‘slum slug’ speech about his younger lover – despite Morrissey’s impassioned delivery.

The situation of the piece, combined with Peter McKintosh’s period set and costume design, and Posner’s faithfulness to period accents, highlight the age of the work. It’s possible to take Pinter’s works and make them fresh and urgent (Jamie Lloyd did it with Betrayal in 2019) but delivered like this, these works feel dated. Still, how great it is to see this calibre of acting in a 126-seater studio theatre.

The Lover / The Collection is at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath until 20 April 2024