Students from the John Madejski Academy (JMA) performed Harold Pinter‘s dark and troubling one-act play One for the Road on 21 March. The play remains just as relevant in our modern world of nihilistic global tyranny as it was when first performed in 1984.

It would be wrong to think of this as a purely political play; it also explores the dark and sadistic side of our personalities. It’s a very edgy piece for young people to perform and it’s amazing how this troupe of talented actors approach the subject matter with such knowing performances and confident energy.

The stage boundary was dark and hemmed-in, but the intense lighting almost stung the eyes, making the action and the dialogue intense and impossible to ignore. The scene opened with a hostage in a chair, two other figures on the floor and one female interrogator called Nick. We later learn that these are two male married parents and a young daughter who are being systematically threatened, terrorised and tortured by Nick, who uses banal then obscenely threatening language to intimidate them, break their will and numb their senses, maybe even to obtain some information which remains obscure.

Nick also makes references to threats of sexual violence that may have happened elsewhere, in what we later learn is a suburban house being used in some sort of secret ‘rendering’ operation run by an immoral state. The interrogator is using a live Google Home device as a confidante, adviser and blank voice to play off. The decision of the director, Tommy Robinson, to use Google Home as a fifth character and to cast gender roles in a male marriage and Nick as female certainly enriched this ambitious performance, adding extra suggestions of homophobia, modern dystopia, political alienation and horror.

There is a real drive by the interrogator to know if she is being feared, respected or both. Her casual acts of violence and humiliation intended to get a reaction from her morose victims culminates in the death of their young daughter. The scene where Nick holds a gun to the hostage and asks Google “shall I shoot this **cker in the face?” is a very tense scene and a real test for Google! The violent blows meted out by Nick were very close to the audience and seemed very realistic thanks to the stagecraft of this talented cast. The play ended on a mysterious note that invited the audience to suggest what would happen next.

Pinter used some amusing profanity in this play, along with repetitious clichés and a smattering of cricketing phrases that would normally have been funny, but even though the continued cheery use of the phrase “one for the road” may start as darkly comic, it gradually becomes harder to bear as the sadistic violence increases. I suppose the modern slang word bantz is an example of the how a suggestion of fun can soon be supplanted by a euphemism for bullying.

Despite its topical relevance, I do not think that this piece entirely works as a political polemic or a warning against the rather obvious corrupt practices of an authoritarian state; I think it absolutely works as a psychodrama and an examination of the banality of evil through language, and the way that violence and systematic abuse fulfils a psychological need for some people to gain absolute mastery over others. Bullying, torture, violence and sexual abuse is not just the proviso of horrible state oppression; it is also used by people from all walks of life to subjugate and control. The Google device seems such a pertinent nod to technology’s manipulation of our understanding of the world.

Two of the actors in this production have been cast by the prestigious theatre company Reading Between the Lines in their upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet and it’s not hard to see why. All four actors played their roles wholeheartedly; there was absolutely no sign of nerves and I couldn’t hear a fluffed line or blip in the action. The physical side of the play was well achieved and the dialogue was delivered clearly and crisply, even under stress. This is a difficult, nasty, but quite brilliant play and these young actors smashed it, leaving the audience shaken and stirred. There was nowhere to hide on that intense, bright cockpit of a stage and these four honoured it with a bravura performance.

During the Q&A afterwards, the actors revealed they had been kept trapped on set for nearly six hours that morning by the director as a way of getting them acclimatised to the isolation, hunger and feelings of despair they would need to show at the performance. The cast answered some intense and deep questions well, with only an occasional intervention by the director. They really showed exceptional maturity and skill.

Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.

  1. John Madejski Academy
  2. Reading Between the Lines