Pinter at the BBC: Theatre 625 – A Slight Ache (6th February 1967)

Edward (Maurice Denham) and Flora’s (Hazel Hughes) idyllic countryside life is disrupted by the arrival of an elderly matchseller (Gordon Richardson). Despite never speaking a word, the old man strikes fear into the heart of Edward and awakens in Flora long-buried sexual desires ….

The first of three consecutive Theatre 625 plays by Pinter, which aired during February 1967, A Slight Ache was originally broadcast by BBC Radio in 1959 (Denham reprising his original radio role).

The oppressive nature of silence, very much a Pinter trait, is a key theme of the play. Remaining mute and pretty much insensible throughout (although there are occasional indications that he can understand at least some of what Edward and Flora are telling him) the matchseller becomes a blank canvas – enabling Edward and Flora to project their own fears, hopes and insecurities onto him.

Both direct several lengthy monologues towards him – for Edward they’re corrosive meetings, culminating in his total collapse. Denham excels throughout (and despite having to handle some very intricate dialogue rattled off at a high pace never falters). He’s matched by Hughes though, although Flora’s meetings are very different from Edward’s.

Edward rambles around a stream of disconnected topics, finding difficulty in asking any straight questions, whereas Flora is much more forthright. For example, she begins by wondering if he could previously have been a poacher (she confides in him that she was raped by a poacher as a girl). This remembrance awakens a sexual thrill in her, which is designed to be a disconcerting revelation in someone previously presented as a loyal and dutiful wife.

Prior to the arrival of the matchseller, the pair have several lengthy scenes – beginning at the breakfast table – which help to establish their relationship. A running battle with a wasp (eventually trapped by the forceful Edward in the marmalade jar) takes up a good few minutes and manages to be both amusing and oddly disturbing. At this point Edward is the dominant force, but once the matchseller appears, their roles become increasingly reversed.

Apart from the actors, Barry Newbery’s sets are an obvious star of the production (the lush garden is particularly impressive). Christopher Morahan’s direction has some nice flourishes, but with an enclosed location and only three actors it has to be fairly static at times.

Amanda Wrigley’s notes in the BFI booklet reports that contemporary critical reaction to A Slight Ache was poor. That may be, but there was the odd positive notice. Kenneth Eastaugh in the Daily Mirror commented that the play “like all Pinter’s works is for all times and for all mediums. Because it’s all about what goes on inside people – and we never change”.

W.D.A. in the Liverpool Echo was less forgiving though, finding it doubtful that anybody would have given the old matchseller such free reign (“it seemed highly questionable”).

Whilst it’s easy to sympathise with W.D.A.’s point of view, it doesn’t prevent A Slight Ache from being a tightly performed psychological drama. True it does sag a little in the middle, but it may be that future rewatches will prove to be rewarding.

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