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BWW Review: BETRAYAL, Theatre Royal Bath

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Pinter’s modern classic stars Nancy Carroll, Edward Bennett and Joseph Millson

BWW Review: BETRAYAL, Theatre Royal Bath

BWW Review: BETRAYAL, Theatre Royal BathIn the week that Dominic West appeared in a cringe-worthy "We're still happily married" two-hander on the doorstep of his Wiltshire home with his deceived wife, the opening of Harold Pinter's tale of betraying loved ones couldn't be more timely.

It's an apt choice to kick off Theatre Royal Bath's Welcome Back Season - the first of three small-cast plays, followed by Michael Frayn's Copenhagen and David Mamet's Oleanna. Not only was it invigorating for audiences to be back inside this beautiful 200-year-old listed building, after doors closed in March, but also to exorcise all manner of betrayals we're currently undergoing as the production unfolded.

Firstly, for those more worried about stepping foot in a theatre than discovering your partner has a secret lover, safety precautions are exemplary. A two-minute video by house manager Darren Portch on the theatre's website guides you through safety measures (be prepared to download a digital programme). Upon arrival, doors are labelled according to seating areas (dress circle, stalls, etc.), temperatures are taken, staff are helpful, and hand sanitising stations battle to equal the number of pauses in the script.

My antisocial companion liked the fact that seats behind, in front and next to us were roped off (rather elegantly with red velvet to match chair coverings), providing plenty of legroom and somewhere to put his coat. "It's like flying first class," he commented. The presence of a masked audience added to the atmosphere of intrigue, too.

The onsite restaurant and bars are closed, however, so you'll have to make do with longing for a sip of wine or whisky generously poured onstage, or a taste of stew cooked in one love-nest scene.

Now, on to more dangerous territory: the drama behind a seven-year illicit relationship and how it affects the betrayers, the betrayed, and, well, everyone. Pinter cleverly relates the chronologically backwards story (an incredible feat of creativity for anyone who's tried to work out a plot) of Jerry (played affably by Edward Bennett) having an affair with his best friend's wife, Emma (a solid performance by Nancy Carroll; the actors are all bubbled together).

Pinter's seventh full-length play was based on an eight-year affair he had with Joan Bakewell in the Sixties. When he sent the script to Bakewell for her comments, she was horrified he'd used her "private life", as she related later in an interview. When the play opened at the National Theatre in 1978 (starring Michael Gambon, Penelope Wilton and Daniel Massey), Pinter was having another affair - this time with Antonia Fraser, while still married to Vivien Merchant.

You don't need to know Pinter's personal backstory to appreciate the concise language, elliptical phrases and repetition that heightens tension in this reverse detective story of sorts (you know the killer, or rather how the affair ends, from the outset), but it might explain why this fascinating work has survived well beyond the Sixties and Seventies, when it is set.

As well as the adulterous couple, Robert (Emma's husband and Jerry's best friend, played by a defiant Joseph Millson) adds to the dangerous and painful game being played out by unreliable narrators trying to look good and avoid pain. Christopher Bianchi, in the role of the waiter, who serves Robert and Jerry during an uneasy lunch, offers much-needed comedy and space to ease the tension.

Director Jonathan Church's excellent production draws us into a world of free love, albeit one where the subtext isn't as liberating. He conveys this through a revolving set of 1960s Parker Knolls furniture in grey and yellow hues (by designer Alex Eales); sound designer and composer Jon Nicholls' eerie soundscape (ghostly children's laughter and pub noises); and soft shadows from lighting designer Joshua Carr. Costumes by Laura Hunt convey time shifts through the two decades, with Emma's swirly orange mini-dress a favourite.

I'd love to see a brave playwright write a sequel featuring unseen characters in the play (Jerry's wife, Judith; and Casey, the author who goes on to have an affair with Emma, for instance). Not unlike characters you never hear in The Archers, these silent players might have a thing or two to say.

The production's length is advertised as 80 minutes in the programme, but the play races by, perhaps shortening some of Pinter's well-known silences. But this is just a quibble. Betrayal is a first-rate show and a welcome return to Theatre Royal Bath.

Betrayal is at Theatre Royal Bath until 31 October

Photo credit: Nobby Clark

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From This Author Cheryl Markosky