SUMMER OF HAROLD
SUMMER OF HAROLD, Ensemble Theatre 12 September - 14 October 2023. Photography by Jaimi Joy: Hannah Waterman and Berynn Schwerdt
Traditionally, the short story gets a bad rap from publishers, who don’t like having to mess about with them. Similarly, the short play – rather than the one-act play – is a rarity for much the same reason: they’re a nuisance to program.
Awarded a commission from Ensemble’s Literary Fund Hilary Bell has solved that problem with elegance and craft. She’s written three short plays, to be performed together, yet unlinked but for the two actors required to perform them. Summer Of Harold, therefore, makes for a seamless yet intensely contrasting 90 minutes that opens with the playlet of that title. It’s a memory – brightly enacted by Hannah Waterman – of two backpacking girls and a long-ago summer. Looking for jobs, any jobs, the temp agency sent them to the Holland Park home of “the most significant British playwright of the twentieth century,” Harold Pinter, and his wife, fabled author Lady Antonia Fraser.
Young Margaret (Waterman) and her New Zealand chum had watched Upstairs Downstairs and, with the confidence of youth, decided it qualified them as housekeeper-cooks-general while the real personnel were home in Spain for the summer. Out of this simple – true – premise, and in a sweetly acerbic half-hour, Bell paints a rich picture of life in the West London mansion. The toff “Lady A” and the East End oik turned literary giant are vivid, as is the latter’s obsession with cricket and cigarettes. Summer Of Harold is illuminating and comical on the topics of class, lunch menus, and famous writing lives.
Next up is Enfant Terrible. In it, a twisted, embittered, unintentionally hilarious ceramicist, Gareth (Berynn Schwerdt), takes us through his disappointing life. Gareth was the student with promise and a brilliant future. In his opinion. His dopy college friend was not. In his opinion. But who is the one up there on the podium, accepting awards and sneering down on his once-condescending pal? And how did it happen? Schwerdt rambles and rages and spits droll, dry observations centring on a small, talismanic wedge of Brie. How that cheese could overshadow an artist’s life slowly becomes apparent in this diamond-bright glitter of words and character.
Finally, part three and Lookout has Schwerdt and Waterman on stage together at a scenic spot high in the Blue Mountains. There is mystery and some poignant red herrings in these 30 minutes. Jonathan and Rae wrangle their way through some of life’s more profound arguments – and relationships. Nothing is as it first seems. Waterman conveys with easy grace how Rae is at once caring and interfering to the point of inviting murder. Meanwhile, long-suffering Jonathan is simultaneously revealed as a drip who could quickly fill a bucket. What transpires between the two will not be what you initially expected.
Directed by Francesca Savige with verve and sensitivity, the actors inhabit a setting of towering shelves (designer Jeremy Allen with lighting by Matt Cox). They contain nods to the period (70s-early-80s Holland Park) as well as clues to highlight place and time for Enfant Terrible and Lookout. A virtual cabinet of curiosities to enliven and entertain and which might resemble the unnerving inner workings of Hilary Bell’s mind. Ninety absorbing, unpredictable minutes of performance and writing. Recommended without hesitation.