Writer: Harold Pinter
Director: Martin Hutson
Few theatres can take as much pride at getting back into action as East Riding Theatre in Beverley. Largely volunteer-run, with an urgent need to replace its worn out second-hand seating during a time of no income, ERT has opened its doors again, with slick new signage and comfortable seating. Admittedly it’s all being done on a small scale. The theatre has decided to cut down audiences in the interests of social distancing and the first production is a mere 50 minutes long –a small-scale masterpiece.
And The Dumb Waiter is a masterpiece! A wonderfully surreal black comedy of the absurd, it belongs to the time before Harold Pinter developed pretensions, when he let his imagination gambol through inconsequential overlapping dialogue or sit in puzzlement at meaningless silences (which have a meaning, of course – we just don’t know what it is). Over 60 years on, The Dumb Waiter comes up fresh as paint. It doesn’t need any fancy innovations, just a production that gets it right – and ERT gets it 100% right!
In the basement of a building somewhere in Birmingham, on a Saturday when the Villa are away, there are three dumb waiters. Two hitmen wait in ignorance for the orders to do their latest job and a previously unnoticed dumb waiter suddenly begins sending down for increasingly exotic dishes for the café upstairs, if there is a café upstairs.
The dialogue between the two hitmen has a glorious banality. Do murderers awaiting their latest victim talk about newspaper stories of the accidental death of old women or the violence of children? Or fret about the inadequacies of food supplies or the cleanness of bed-sheets? Or nearly come to blows over a matter of idiom? Quite possibly – why not?
Pinter is the master of the menace of the mundane and beneath it all there is a growing tension between the two men: the senior partner, Ben, is understandably irritated by the mindless wittering of Gus, but it’s more than that. The menace of the dumb waiter’s orders is inexplicable, but present: soon even hard-boiled Ben is panicking, scuttling around to find food they can offer to the god upstairs – biscuits, a solitary Eccles cake. And then there is the question of who is to be the victim. Unlike Mr. Godot in another great play of waiting that The Dumb Waiter frequently resembles, he will come, not tomorrow, but surely today.
Frazer Hammill (Ben) and Nick Figgis (Gus) are a perfect partnership from the off, with stone-faced Ben trying to take his ease with a tabloid paper and callow Gus attempting frantically to get a response. There are moments of violence that occasionally explode into action, but for the most part the performances are understated, leaving the audience to do the worrying – when not too busy with appreciative chuckles.
Martin Hutson’s perfectly judged production plays it straight – if the audience wants to read a political agenda into a world where we are controlled by unseen forces above us (the “café”, Ben and Gus’s anonymous employer), it’s all there. Or you can just enjoy a production that puts the text (and what a text!) before any new concept or interpretation.
Runs until September 25th 2021