Driving Miss Daisy was not the only show opening in London last week set behind a steering-wheel. But while Alfred Uhry’s drama uses a car as a vehicle for interracial understanding, in Victoria Station, the first in a double bill of two works by Harold Pinter, the two protagonists are going nowhere.
A taxi controller tries to cajole a driver into collecting a fare from London’s Victoria Station – a destination the driver, slumped at the wheel amid some existential crisis, says he has never heard of. The two are paralysed by their need to speak to someone, and their inability to get anything done. Something has to give.
Will the controller’s soothing promises and increasingly bizarre threats (“I’ll eat all the hair off your body”) come to anything? Who is the passenger in the back of the cab? The tension mounts, the face of the controller, brilliantly played by Keith Dunphy, becomes knotted in frustration. And then, after 10 minutes – with the interlocutors unhinged, confused and poised for action – the sketch ends abruptly, segueing into One for the Road.
Here, we find Nicholas, an officer in the security apparatus of a repressive regime, threatening in turn the husband, child and wife of an imprisoned dissident family. Unlike in Victoria Station, the brutal talk is followed through, albeit via allusions to rape, murder and mutilation offstage, and the limp of a detainee on it.
Pinter has Nicholas speak in a distinctly banal British idiom, jolting us from our expectations of evil. It is a sporadically effective technique. Kevin Doyle’s strong performance as Nicholas, all jumpy breath, middle-management smarm and delirious intimidation, cannot hide some bathetic phrasing – neither “shitbags” nor “the chap” who “runs this country” quite work.
Elsewhere, the bland, quotidian character of Nicholas’s speech is powerful. Does the audience conceive of torture as something only done in another timezone, with abuse barked in an alien language? How unnerving is it to hear brutal state-sanctioned threats issued in a familiar idiom?
Pinter’s point here is subtle, if decidedly political. Other references to an alliance between fascism and the authority of God fail to emerge from a script whose focus and energy fade, even if the fine acting here remains concentrated and admirable to the last.