'The Collection' – size matters

James Eastwood 9 November 2007

From the moment we hear the jarring sound of a telephone at the beginning of this play, something uncertain strikes us. Indeed the play is about uncertainty, in classic Harold Pinter style. Two couples – ‘Bill’ and ‘Harry’, ‘James’ and ‘Stella’ – are brought together over speculation about whether ‘Bill’ (Ade O’Brien) and ‘Stella’ (Claire Wells) had a brief affair in Leeds the previous week. It soon becomes clear that, in this piece, the truth matters much less than what the pursuit of it reveals about characters and their relationships.

Director Joe Hytner has managed to capture the unease of the script well. Sudden scene changes are aided by subtle lighting and smooth but exciting music; the physical acting – so vitally important in moments of Pinteresque silence – is accomplished. The set’s transparent walls and the sense of homeliness also contribute to the understanding of the characters’ situations.

The actors’ performances themselves are at times able to carry powerful emotion: Wells portrays ‘Stella’s’ exasperation impressively and Okey Nzelu’s presentation of ‘James’ is often suitably chilling. O’Brien brings depth to ‘Bill’s’ character, expressing well the occasional fragility of his moments of self-satisfaction; and James Arthur Sharpe gives able treatment to ‘Harry’s’ charming but condescending demeanour. The strange relationship between ‘Bill’ and ‘Harry’ is well articulated when there is tension, though perhaps less so when they discuss more mundane domestic matters.

Sadly, many of the flaws in the performance seemed to arise from the challenge of such a large venue. Particularly at the beginning, Nzelu and Sharpe occasionally falter in their ability to carry the feeling behind the dialogue when they project it across the auditorium. This would not have been a problem in a more intimate (or perhaps a fuller) theatre. A smaller venue would also have added something to the moments of pause that this production captures quite nicely but which at times seem a little too distant to be truly effective. One also has the sense that much of the comedy of Pinter’s script was missing, something that might have rectified through better timing and (once again) greater proximity to the actors.

The technical capacities of the Fitzpatrick Hall are indeed a tempting asset – and they are well harnessed here. But the undoubted promise to be found in this performance would have been better served by somewhere more suited to the scale of the production.

James Eastwood