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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 18th March 2006

The Winterling / Sinatra / Pete and Dud: Come Again

Has Harold Pinter become too dominant a figure? I'm not just talking about the trophies he's picked up in the past 12 months--the Wilfred Owen prize, the Franz Kafka prize, the Nobel prize, the Europe Theatre prize--but, more worryingly, the fact that so many new British playwrights seem content to ape Pinter's idiosyncratic style. There was a time, not so long ago, when a writer wouldn't be regarded as having arrived until he'd discovered his own voice. Typically, this process would involve him in an Oedipal struggle with the most important writers of his age, a phenomenon famously documented in The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom's study of the romantic poets. Nowadays, it seems, the prospect of being influenced is no longer a source of anxiety--at least, not when it comes to Pinter. On the contrary, Oedipal resistance has given way to craven obeisance. Faced with a figure of such overpowering authority--enhanced, no doubt, by Pinter's extraordinary force of personality--most young playwrights experience the theatrical equivalence of the Führer Kontakt.

The Winterling, a new play by Jezz Butterworth, is a case in point. The plot, which concerns a power struggle between a former gangland enforcer living in rural seclusion and two sinister figures up from the Smoke, is an amalgam of The Birthday Party, The Caretaker and The Dumb Waiter, while the theatrical devices Butterworth employs--infusing the dialogue with menace, conjuring up an atmosphere of unspecified threat, withholding essential information--are straight out of Pinter's box of tricks. The Winterling certainly isn't intended to be a pastiche, and it isn't a homage, either, at least not in the cinematic sense. It's an out-and-out impersonation. It's almost as if Butterworth, who has yet to live up to his early promise, is auditioning for the job of Pinter's chief disciple. It's the opposite of an Oedipal struggle--Butterworth is Hector, desperately hoping for Priam's acceptance before the old man shuffles off his mortal coil.

What's so disappointing about this is that Butterworth is clearly enormously talented. For most of it's two-and-a-half-hour running time, The Winterling plods along, forelock in hand, content to follow in the footsteps of the Master. Just occasionally, though, it takes flight--a new, less controlled voice emerges--and at these moments the play is genuinely thrilling. Oddly enough, almost all of the best scenes in The Winterling belong to Daniel Mays, the gifted young actor who's become a mainstay at the Royal Court in the last couple of years. With his lanky, string-puppet frame and his flip-flopping facial expressions, Mays provides a much-needed jolt of comic energy every time he opens his mouth--and Butterworth's writing in these sections is much more freeform and loosey-goosey. Indeed, at the beginning of the second half, when the action flashes back to the previous year and it's clear Mays isn't going to be on stage for a while, my heart sank. Thankfully, he returns for the finale and by the end of the evening I was almost ready to recommend The Winterling on the strength of Mays's performance alone.

Sinatra is a more straightforward tribute show. Using state-of-the-art digital technology, the director David Leveaux has taken some black-and-white film stock of Ol' Blue Eyes working his way through his repertoire, edited out the background, and then combined it with a live band and a dance troupe to create a simulacra of a Sinatra concert. Actually, "simulacra" is probably the wrong word, since no one could possibly mistake this for the real thing. In fact, Leveaux has invented a new theatrical form that owes its inspiration to those clip reels shown at the Oscars during the "in memoriam" section. As with those dusty old tributes, Sinatra offers very little to anyone who isn't already a fan, but for those of us who are it's a pleasantly undemanding way to spend a few hours. Its main shortcoming is that the biographical narrative that provides the filler between the songs is infuriatingly anodyne, glossing over Sinatra's involvement with the mafia, and not even mentioning the hookers, the booze, the bar fights--or, indeed, anything that accounts for the Chairman of the Board's sleazy glamour. If I didn't know better, I would have come away from this show thinking Sinatra was the American equivalent of Cliff Richard.

Pete and Dud: Come Again is yet another kind of tribute, in this case to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore who are literally impersonated by Tom Goodman-Hill and Kevin Bishop. Hiring young comic actors to lovingly re-create the classic routines of Britain's most famous comedians of yesteryear has become a mini-genre in the past five years and, to date, Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, the Goons, Keneth Horne and Kenneth Williams have all received the treatment. I haven't seen all of these plays, but Pete and Dud: Come Again is the best of the ones I have seen, principally because the original material is so strong. There's surely nothing funnier in the West End at the moment than watching Goodman-Hill and Bishop faithfully rehash the best bits from Derek and Clive Live. The entire play only lasts two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes, but I could have happily sat there all night.

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