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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Family Voices

We were in Sheffield last evening to see a reading of Harold Pinter’s Family Voices. The Sheffield Crucible Theatre are celebrating Pinter’s work, and this was just one of several productions around the same theme.

The play was directed by Polly Thomas and Justine Potter and recorded for the BBC. The voices were read by Samuel West, Prunella Scales, and Timothy West, Timothy West and Prunella Scales have been married for a long time and Samuel West is their son and also the artistic director of Sheffield Theatres. He is credited with a memorable Hamlet but has also appeared in film and tv productions. Prunella Scales has also played many theatrical parts but is most easily remembered as Basil Fawlty’s wife, Sybil, in Fawlty Towers. Timothy West is a well-known face in British theatre, most recently as Sir Leicester in BBC television’s Bleak House.

Pinter’s subject is loneliness, and this play underlines the theme again. The characters are lonely and they reach out for others who always evade their grasp. They reach out for themselves, but it is as if they weren’t really there. They miss every opportunity to bridge the gap that would unite them with the rest of the community.

They are often briefly eloquent, sometimes funny, always possessed of insights, not least about themselves, but none of these talents act in their favour.

And Pinter, the writer, has got a barrow-load of treasures for us to sift through. That’s what he does, he puts all this stuff in front of you, like a man with a market stall. But he doesn’t care if you buy or not. It doesn’t make any difference to him. His work’s done. With Pinter you take it or leave it. Usually, you take it, gratefully. While he stands back, almost hidden behind those spangled butterflies.


Pinter was in the audience. And there he was again at the interval, in the bar with a glass of white wine, looking remarkably well and relaxed.


The second half of the evening consisted of Samuel West interviewing his parents about their lives and their time on the stage.
The elder Wests were seen travelling to the theatre on a number 61 bus, and when asked about it, explained that they usually do use public transport, on principle, and actually find it easier than travelling by car and finding somewhere to park, etc.


Timothy West told a story about how some actors can identify, by sound, which tapes of canned laughter are being used by broadcasters. Apparently a recent episode of Cheers was backed by a tape of canned laughter which was at least thirty-five years old. He had to reflect that many of the voices had now passed on, and so it was a group of dead voices that were prompting the audience to recognize that a joke had been made.

6 Responses to “Family Voices”

  1. Martyn says:

    I remember trying to get my head around The Dumb Waiter as a 15 year old Theatre Studies student. Even then I can remember thinking just how revealing those pregnant silences could be. It was quite revolutionary to our busy adolescent minds.

    jb says: The use of language in this play was just wonderful. I suppose it’s dialogue rather than language which is Pinter’s strength. The pauses, yes, and he also gets a lot of mileage out of repetition.

  2. Anna says:

    I wonder if they have to pay royalties for canned laughter to its generators?

    Sounds like a wonderful evening.

    jb says: That canned laughter is weird, isn’t it? Sometimes so hollow. Now every time I hear it I have a vision of the grave. But, yes, a great evening. Sometimes happens like that, you’re not full of expectation, and then everything turns out to be just that much better than you hoped.

  3. Justine Potter says:

    But did you enjoy it?

    Justine Potter

    jb says: Justine, it was great.

  4. Cathy @ 3 at 1 Copying says:

    Prunella Scales, she must be really fantastic on stage and live, I absolutely loved her in Fawlty Towers. She was a real laugh.

  5. Mark H says:

    Hey great research greatly appreciate you writing this and regarding:”The second half of the evening consisted of Samuel West interviewing his parents about their lives and their time on the stage.”
    it was magnificent huh

  6. Ian Jones says:

    Jb, you note Pinter’s ‘use of language’, ‘pauses’ and ‘repetition’; I too feel that these are the elements that warrant the play its acclaimed status. Pinter has a wonderful talent for translating the linguistic patterns of everyday life onto the stage, and does so in a way that is far from mundane. Certainly, the characters that he develops are constantly intriguing, and Pinter manages to portray their true depth through his astute grasp of the spoken word.