Review: Little Menace: Pinter Plays (Soulpepper Theatre)

Soulpepper Theatre presents a selection of Harold Pinter shorts to Toronto audiences

Little Menace: Pinter Plays, currently playing at Soulpepper Theatre, is a collection of short works by Harold Pinter that offers up brief yet biting scenarios that manage to be as darkly funny as they are tedious and disquieting.

I found many of these absurdist, cyclical scenes somewhat exasperating, but that mounting frustration is intentional and shared by the characters who taunt and pester each other with rhetoric. 

Sometimes the menace is overt, tangible and explicit. In the segments I found most intriguing, though, the threat is harder to determine yet undeniably present. And that is, for me, the defining characteristic of Pinter: this awful antagonism lurking beneath mundane interactions.

Thomas Moschopoulos’ direction frequently exploits moments for broad humour, with the performers slightly self-aware throughout, and as so some of the comedic elements felt less organic and more like schtick to me. (There is some business with a plexiglass cube that still has me perplexed.) The audience found it laugh out loud funny almost constantly. My guest was irritated by this laugh track and suggested that the more subtle, quietly sinister implications in the text may have been lost.

As their conversations spiral down into bizarre, haunted caverns of desire and resentment, Maev Beaty, Alex McCooeye, Diego Matamoros and Gregory Prest offer plenty of genuinely compelling moments that are touching, terrifying and hypnotic.

Shannon Lea Doyle’s set is a dreary, minimalist nightmare of modern urban life. Mismatched and disparate pieces of furniture seem somehow lonely and disassociated underneath structural beams that give off a cool, institutional light. These beams loom and lean threateningly, ready to buckle and collapse upon our antagonistic characters. The plain white walls have a hint of patchy greyness that suggests mildew and seemed to be leaking something imperceptible yet treacherous into the air.

My favourite scene is one called “Victoria Station.” A gruff yet impressively tolerant taxi dispatcher tries to persuade a bewildered rogue driver to pick up a client. It is, for me, the most whimsical and poignant entry, with its creeping sense of unease as both men become unmoored from the procedural reality of their job functions and find themselves adrift in existential dread.

During the latter portion of the evening, a segment called “The Basement,” in which two men struggle for control over an apartment and their shared lover, I found myself feeling somewhat detached and fidgety. The piece was originally written as a film/tv screenplay and is performed with action lines narrated by a director figure. It has an allegorical quality and is the most stylized of the lot. Because of its comparatively long length, it feels like the main feature, though it was one of the most tiresome for me.

I left the theatre thinking that I didn’t much like the production, but after a good night’s sleep and a day spent unpacking it, I find myself appreciating Little Menace more upon reflection than I did in the moment. 

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Photo of Alex McCooeye, Gregory Prest, Diego Matamoros and Maev Beaty by Dahlia Katz.