Magazine article The Spectator

Obsessed with Pinter

Magazine article The Spectator

Obsessed with Pinter

Article excerpt

It's the size of a Hackney bedsit but the ambience is cosily expensive. Sonia Friedman's tiny office above the Duke of York's Theatre in St Martin's Lane has warm, pinkish lighting and elegant armchairs with thick, deep cushions. The dark wallpaper is obscured by framed posters of hit West End shows. Sprawled across the sofa there's a touch of pure kitsch: a six-year-old poodle, snuffling and dozing, whose fluffy white forelegs are sheathed in the armlets of a scarlet tank top. His name is Teddy and he looks like the victim of a stag-night prank contentedly sleeping off his hangover.

Opposite me sits Sonia Friedman - pretty, blonde, in her mid-40s - who occupies a formidable position as one of the West End's leading producers. We have no specific subject to discuss but Harold Pinter crops up almost immediately.

'I've been obsessed with his work ever since I started to study plays, ' she says. In her early 20s, as a stage manager at the National Theatre, she was attached to a production Pinter was directing. Her job was to annotate his notes. 'One day, he leaned across and said to me, "I think we need a pause there." ' That night, she rushed home and telephoned all her friends. 'Guess what! Harold Pinter asked me to write "pause".'

She got to know him better when she began staging his work in the West End. In 2007, she produced The Dumb Waiter starring Lee Evans and Jason Isaacs. The following year her production of No Man's Land, starring Michael Gambon, drew this accolade from Pinter. 'It is the definitive production.' By then he was entering the final stages of his terminal illness and he asked Gambon to read a speech from the play at his funeral.

Two years ago, Friedman produced Betrayal, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, at the Comedy Theatre, which had just been renamed in the playwright's honour.

'Kristin is just extraordinary in Pinter.

And when we were doing Betrayal, she said to me, "What's next, what's next?" ' Here, Friedman impersonates a little girl excitedly clapping her hands, as if greeting the arrival of her birthday cake. 'So I said, "Old Times." And Old Times it was.' The production is in the hands of Ian Rickson, 'one of Pinter's favourite directors', and it's evident that he shares Friedman's fanatical devotion to the master. Each day, before work begins on the play, Rickson lays out one of Pinter's old suitcases in the rehearsal space, alongside a pen and a notebook. These relics were bequeathed to Rickson in the playwright's will. It all sounds slightly spooky.

But, in one sense, it's a breakthrough for the West End: the first play to be co-directed by the author from beyond the grave. I ask if we can expect more of Pinter's work from Friedman's dream team of worshippers. 'I hope so, ' she says. 'I just want to produce every Pinter there is.'

Friedman rose fast - and almost accidentally - to the peak of her profession.

(And while it's common for high fliers to claim that chance propelled them to the top, Friedman's story rings true. ) During the late 1980s, as a junior stage manager, she began putting on benefit gigs for Aids charities. She was booking acts, finding theatres, asking favours, commissioning posters and arranging publicity for shows. In other words, executive producing.

The Ambassador Theatre Group spotted her talent and invited her to put together a short season of plays in one of its smaller houses in the West End. …

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