“One for the road” is such a flippant, jovial expression, isn’t it? Something dads say at the pub. Or, you might say it towards the end of a dinner party. But I’ll never hear the expression in quite the same way again, having seen The Print Room and Young Vic’s co-production of Pinter’s brutal short play which makes it the catchphrase of Nicolas, a demented, whisky-drinking political officer authorising the physical torture of prisoners. One for the Road is playing in a Pinter double bill with Victoria Station; these two little-known plays haven’t been staged together since they were directed by the writer in the mid-1980s.
Nicolas, played with spine-tingling controlled mania by Kevin Doyle, chirrups “one for the road” each time he takes a measure of Laphroaig, punctuating his mesmerising, eerie encounters with the victims summoned to his room having been tortured. The room is bleak and harshly lit, furnished with nothing beyond what is functional: some benches, a desk, a drinks cabinet. Seated in rows on all four sides, the audience is witness to a day on which Nicolas, controller of the torture carried out by men he refers to as “everybody else”, “my soldiers” or “some of my boys”, hosts conversations in turn with Victor, his wife Gila, and their young boy Nicky, a family punished for offences against the regime – any regime. This could be any era in which dictators and totalitarian regimes somehow thrive. Nicolas is all the scarier for his lack of specific sociopolitical context: he could be a figure from yesterday; he could be a figure from tomorrow.
Gila (Anna Hewson) is raped, countless times, by the boys beyond the room, the impact of her torture worn on her face, body and clothes. Victor (Keith Dunphy) can barely move and speak, his body wrecked and his tongue mutilated. Nicky (Thomas Capodici, Rory Fraser) is playfully unaware of the fate Nicolas has decided for him. Nicolas is drunk on power and, quite literally, drunk, as he interrogates, taunts and torments, chillingly dispassionate, wickedly articulate, and – I felt uncomfortable thinking this, but realised it was possibly Pinter’s intent – horrifically charming.
The transformation from the character he plays first in Victoria Station makes Kevin Doyle’s performance as Nicolas yet more nerve-jangling. We see him as disoriented cab driver 274 sitting in his cab somewhere in the dark, with Keith Dunphy as a controller talking to him through the radio system from the cab office, diagonally opposite on the stage. A fiercely poetic and fast-paced two-hander, this is a brilliant comedy which blackens as it pulses along. The contrast of Doyle’s big-eyed confusion and very basic human vulnerability (“Victoria Station… what is it?”) with Dunphy’s farcical exasperation (“… it’s a station!”) keeps the audience’s eyes darting between the two actors.
The first play is a feast of language and philosophy, with such questions as “Are you in the driving seat?” meaning, of course, so much beyond the literal. Dunphy is superb as the operator, hilariously irritated, frazzled by the utter ridiculousness of a cab driver not knowing where he is, who he is, and which way’s up. But a bond develops between the two over the phone as the facts of 274’s circumstances emerge and they search wildly for some sort of shared reality, compassion and resolve.
So, in a transition brilliantly conceived by director Jeff James, when the lights go down on Victoria Station and Doyle makes the change from crumpled cabby 274 into nasty Nicolas for One for the Road, it’s an arresting moment – and he manages to keep all eyes glued to him from then on. Dunphy’s switch from witty, fast-talking minicab operator to the physically tortured and verbally restricted Victor in the second play is also unsettling, but not equally. We know sensibly as we watch that these are two separate plays and that Kevin Doyle is an actor shifting roles, but the implication that someone so ordinary – the everyman – could rise to such menacing power is inescapable, and troubling.
This is a pair of Pinter plays that together consume less than an hour of an audience’s time, but leave a lingering chill, raising hefty questions, important then, now and in the future, about people and power.
One for the Road/Victoria Station plays at The Print Room, 34 Hereford Road, London W2 5AJ, until 1 October, and then transfers for 6-15 October to the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, London SE1 8LZ. More information.
Rehearsal photography by Sheila Burnett.