REVIEW: Eavesdropping on a painful conversation

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Ashes To Ashes by Harold Pinter at the Arundel Jailhouse

In a tea shop parlour some years ago where I was happily constructing a mid-afternoon scone castle piled high with jam and clotted cream, a couple sat down at the adjoining table.

In loud voices they continued a heated conversation which was only brought to a sudden interruption when they had drained the last of their Earl Grey and settled their bill.

Who they were, their relationship with one another, and the people towhom they referred in their fragment of conversation, all remained mysteries to me.

But for 40 minutes I had been an accidental witness to their human drama played out amongst the coconut cookies and fancy cakes of a Tudor Establishment in Sussex.

Watching Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes in the intimate setting of Arundel’s Jailhouse was strangely reminiscent of my real-life eavesdropping experience.

For this is a play that cuts into a conversation between two people, focuses on its every nuance for three quarters of an hour, then withdraws just as abruptly.

From what they say and how they behave we can only guess at theirnrelationship. Husband and wife? Lover and mistress? Psychiatrist and patient?

And their dialogue hints at so much darkness in the past - told in fleeting and shadowy dreams rather than directly described.

Are these the atrocities of the Nazi concentrations camps that are son obliquely and bleakly being referred to?

Pinter’s short play is designed to raise more questions than it answers. To draw you in quickly and then abandon you just when you have a sense that the full picture is elusively and alluringly within reach.

But its success or failure hinges on the quality of the acting.

This Jailhouse production is as ever a sparkling gem.

Pauline Fleming (Penny King in Coronation Street and Val Walker in Brookside) stars alongside local actor Collin Baxter (‘Same time next year’,’ My Mother was an Alien’,’Peeping Tom’).

Both give breathtakingly compulsive performances and Pauline, in particular, dazzles with the way in which she creates vivid pictures through Pinter’s broadbrush strokes of dialogue.

The Jailhouse is not necessarily the ideal setting. Its austerity mirrors the mood of the text - whereas the intention is to create a country house scene that echoes with eerie contrast.

That unavoidable inconsistency apart, this is a mini masterpiece.

Doors: 8:30pm. Tickets: £8.00 for members and £10.00 for non-members.