The Tea Party - Premiere

Programme Cover

First produced at the Duchess Theatre on 17 September 1970
in a double bill with The Basement

Disson - Donald Pleasance
Wendy - Vivien Merchant
Diana - Gabrielle Drake
Willy - Barry Foster
Tom - Robin Angell
John - Kevin Chippendale
Disley - Derek Aylward
Lois - Jill Johnson
Father - Arthur Hewlett
Mother - Hilda Barry

Director - James Hammerstein

Lighting - Mark Pritchard
Designer - Una Collins

Pinter propriety
by Irving Wardle

One of the few disclosures an interviewer ever managed to prize out of Harold Pinter was his firm opposition to the open use of four-letter words on the grounds that this would rob the underground vocabulary of its power. There could be no better defence of that view than the present double-bill at the Duchess: adapted from television originals, both plays observe a rigid propriety of language, and project a concentrated feverish sexuality much beyond the range of anything the permissive stage has to offer. Like most of Pinterís work they are concerned with the experience of invasion; or, to be more exact, an invitation that goes wrong.

The middle-aged bachelor tenant of The Basement asks in an old friend who promptly moves in with his girl and takes over the bed. In Tea Party, an aggressively self-sufficient plumbing tycoon makes an upper-class marriage while falling into delirious infatuation with a secretary (one of Pinterís genteel seductresses) whom he has simultaneously engaged. You might say that both pieces explore the sexual frustrations of middle-age; but the factor of suppression extends beyond the central characters to every part of the writing. It is there, crudely, when the basement tenant, babbling on about his old friendís possessions while avidly studying the girlís body, exclaims, ëWhat yachts. What yachts.í But it is also there in the general quality of the verbal exchanges which suggest a fist occasionally relaxed and instantly reclenched; it is there in the hiss of nylon as the secretary crosses and recrosses her legs ñ as she takes dictation, and in an outburst of enigmatic actions in which hidden anger explodes against some arbitrary object.

Gabrielle Drake, Barry Foster, Donald Pleasance

It is also there in the brevity of the scenes; and in this respect the transition from television to stage is not always happy. The Basement, for instance, requires rapid cuts between the flat, the sea-shore, an open , and between two total changes of furnishing. All this James Hammersteinís production somehow accomplishes, within short blackouts; but the effect is only approximate and sometimes obscure. It may be impossible to find any wholly satisfactory solution, but something should certainly be done about sight-lines to the stage-action, largely masked last night by a central sofa.
The play itself gains its main resonance by exploring an ambiguous zone of shifting allegiances, in which the tenantís lust for the girl is deflected by his loyalty to his old pal: so that at one moment he is slobbering over the friendís supposed death bed, and at the next, panting towards a climax on the floor. It is a glacially funny and ferocious piece, marred only by Pinterís compulsive sense of neatness which brings it to an unprepared cyclic conclusion.
Translation into stage terms also raised problems in the second play; but for the piece itself I have no reservations. It strikes me as a masterpiece, unfolding in obedience to an iron logic of its own, embracing comedy and terror, and capable of several interpretations all of which leave behind an element of mystery. On the simplest level it is a case history of hysterical blindness: Disson, the tycoon, being unable to look clearly at the fact that what he wants socially does not match his sexual wants.
Accordingly he can only touch the secretary when his eyes are bandaged: and finally he goes blind. Socially it shows that he was blind from the start. He wants to better himself by marriage; but no matter whom he marries or how much money he makes, he remains rooted in the plumbing business. All he discovers is that the gracious livers are prepared to move in and feed off him.

Here, as in the first play, Donald Pleasance inhabits the central role as the one vulnerable figure ina stage of cold armoured intruders. He excels in showing the odd routes in which fear and desperation break surface: dropping his jaw into a savage false smile, hurling gramophone records across the room; reverting to coarse insult to equalise with his smooth superiors. What he cannot convey on the stage are the playís shifts between naturalistic action and Dissonís own distorted perception of the events.
Only the camera can properly transmit this. But the production is a treat; especially as it shows off Barry Foster in a splendidly contrasted pair of intrusive roles (taciturn squatter and public school parasite), and brings Vivien Merchant back as the serpentine, long-gowned Wendy, much the most inflammatory secretary ever to bend over any theatrical filing cabinet.
The Times, 18th September 1970

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