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Betrayal - Comedy Theatre (review)

Douglas Henshall, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ben Miles

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

INSPIRED by the playwright’s seven-year extramarital affair with television presenter Joan Bakewell, Betrayal is generally considered to be one of Harold Pinter’s major dramatic works.

Since receiving its world premiere at the National Theatre in 1978, it has enjoyed a number of revivals – even a film adaptation – and the latest, directed by Ian Rickson and starring Kristin Scott Thomas (as Emma), Douglas Henshall (as Jerry) and Ben Miles (as Robert), has just opened at the Comedy Theatre.

As the title suggests, it’s a story of betrayal or to be more accurate, betrayals – the kind occasioned by an extramarital affair. Here, they’re brought sharply into focus by the three protagonists: Emma, who’s married to Robert but having an affair with his long-time friend Jerry, who in turn, is married to someone called Judith. I say ‘someone’ because although she’s mentioned frequently, we never actually meet her.

Innovative in its day, Betrayal unfolds, not in chronological order but for the most part, in reverse, so that we’re first introduced to the characters in 1977, after the affair has ended. And the final curtain falls as the affair begins in 1968. Moreover, the whole is punctuated by pauses, when a look is more eloquent than the spoken word.

As Emma, Kristin Scott Thomas turns in a fine performance, imbuing her character with a vulnerability and charm that in some small way elevate her above the less seemly aspects of the affair. And her physical appearance defies the backward passage of time.

Douglas Henshall’s Jerry is mild mannered, likeable and occasionally bewildered, yet the double standards are all too apparent. Despite insisting that his and Emma’s relationship remains the same and their rented flat is not a home, there’s a momentary elation when he thinks the baby Emma is expecting might be his.

Ben Miles brings an underlying menace to his character. Arrogant and with a temper bubbling just beneath the surface, Robert is a man to be reckoned with. Even a harmless plate of melon and prosciutto is subject to his aggression. And I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t aware of his wife’s infidelity from the very beginning.

Then there’s the waiter who appears but briefly in one scene yet is played with aplomb by John Guerrasio, making Robert’s all too apparent aggression the perfect foil for his composure.

Jeremy Herbert’s uncluttered set design doesn’t always make full use of the stage, yet brings an added intimacy to certain scenes; the opening scene, for example, when Emma and Jerry meet again after the affair has ended.

All in all this is a very fine production and will no doubt provide audience members with plenty of food for thought. With its honest and open appraisal of an extramarital affair, it might even occasionally cause discomfort. That same honesty will also evoke laughter, simply because we recognize it for what it is. All that, plus great acting, makes Betrayal a night out not to be missed.

Read about the cast and creative team

Betrayal is booking at the Comedy Theatre until August 20, 2011.