“The Lover”/”The Collection” at Ustinov Studio, Bath

Simon Thomas in the South West
1 April 2024

Premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre in 1962, The Collection is one of Harold Pinter’s funniest plays. It has all the Pinter hallmarks: a threatening intruder, exquisitely painful but doomed attempts to control, and a flow of urbane epigrams and non-sequiturs. The most mundane utterances – “Do you have any olives?”, “Did I?” “You’re a wag” – are filled with violently sexual impulses and desperate longings for assurance, both surprising and delighting with their unexpectedness.


Mathew Horne.
Photo credit: Nobby Clark.


Experienced Pinter director Lindsay Posner has assembled a cast of seasoned performers (David Morrissey and Claudie Blakley) for this Bath Theatre Royal revival in the Ustinov Studio, alongside newer talent (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) and, in a neat sidestep, TV comedy specialist Mathew Horne. They have the daunting task of trying to erase the indelible memory of Laurence Olivier, Alan Bates, Malcolm McDowell, and Helen Mirren in the classic Granada TV production of 1976, which can probably never be bettered.

In a slightly different approach to the character of James, the husband who suspects his wife has slept with a petulant young dress designer, Horne sheds his usual cheeky chappie persona, presenting him as louche, drawling, and feminine. While this arguably distracts somewhat from the acute passive-aggression of the character, it adds something to the awkward dynamic of the situation. There’s always an ambiguity in his relentless hunting-down of the supposed adulterer, an expression of both repulsion and attraction, but the campness of Horne’s characterization enhances the suggestion of repressed desire. When James knocks Bill down and stands over him, his crotch within easy kicking distance from the prone figure in a kind of Mexican stand-off, Horne is all coiled violence and cupidity while Barnes-Worrell lies back with crossed legs almost enjoying the dilemma.

As the mercurial, free-spirited Bill, described by his prissy, worked-up older housemate and presumed lover Harry as a “tyke”, Barnes-Worrell brings a wily freshness and youth, while Morrissey imbues the desperate Harry with world-weary pain and insecurity in a performance of great experience and comedic accomplishment. There’s a tendency from all the cast to skip through the lines without fully relishing Pinter’s marvellous phrases (the pointed and poignant “slum slug” speech a case in point), and it would be worth adding ten minutes to the running time to adjust this, but the production pays fuller tribute to the theatrical strangeness of the text than some other recent Pinter stagings.

Blakley, relegated to the upstage area of Peter McKintosh’s elegant double-location set, has a lot less to do than the men but speaks volumes with her thunderous final refusal to respond. In an age of incontinent social media outpourings, it’s an object lesson in the potency of silence.

In its familiar coupling, the 50-minute The Collection is preceded by the contemporaneous The Lover (premiered on TV in 1963), in which the more experienced cast members act out an extraordinary display of vulnerability and neediness as a suburban couple role-playing an ostensible sexual fantasy that has more to do with power politics than lust. Morrissey and Blakley spar expertly through an hour of short scenes in which, as with The Collection, it is not clear whether the truth is ever told. When Richard and Sarah are supposedly being themselves in their detached house near Windsor, they are play-acting just as much as when they are pretending to be casual pick-ups in the park as reality and fantasy merge in a confusing and deadly serious game.

In both plays, the characters that long most to control their wayward partners – the impotent senior citizen Harry and the hapless husband James in The Collection, and the hopelessly provincial city executive Richard in The Lover – have the least power, while the seemingly weaker parties gain dominance through detachment and self-interest.

As with other recent offerings in the Ustinov’s recent programme (under Deborah Warner’s leadership), principally Posner’s superlative production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this Pinter double bill once more proves the venue to be a powerhouse of regional drama. It serves to bring the playwright effectively into a later age, one in which his vision of mangled communication and power struggle is perhaps ever more relevant.