Writer: Harold Pinter
Director: Alice Hamilton
It has been a long wait. Celebrating its 60th birthday, Hampstead Theatre announced a “greatest hits” season early in 2020, starting with a revival of Harold Pinter’s one-act classic The Dumb Waiter, which received its world premiere here in 1960. When the play was staged in the West End only last year, it formed half of a double bill and eyebrows were raised at the prospect of paying normal ticket prices for a mere 55 minutes of theatre (with no interval, but plenty of Pinter pauses). Now, many months later, the production finally hits the stage in a socially distanced environment and such reservations feel irrelevant. All that theatre-starved audiences should want to do is rejoice at its arrival.
The play could be viewed as a sinister comedy or an absurdist thriller and even its title has alternative interpretations. Ben and Gus are hit men despatched by an unseen Mr Big to a derelict building in Birmingham to await the arrival of their mysterious next victim. It is a Friday and Aston Villa may or may not be playing at home to Spurs that weekend. In James Perkins’ bleak design, single beds stand on opposite sides of their undecorated room. They taunt each other with inconsequential small talk and then, with a rumble and thud, a dumb waiter appears from what is, apparently, a cafeteria above. It contains orders for meals and drinks, but the gas supply to the kitchen has been cut off and the ingredients needed to fulfil the orders are not available. They respond by sending up what little they can find – a packet of crisps, a stale Eccles cake, a half-pint of sour milk, etc.
An air of foreboding hangs over Alice Hamilton’s production from the outset. Tempo is key, as the famous pauses are followed by rat-a-tat exchanges and then more silence. Questions are asked and left unanswered and clues are placed alluding to the play’s ultimate twist, which, itself, asks yet more questions. The writer is teasing the audience continuously; nothing is what it seems, nor as, in a real world, it could possibly be. The uncertainty keeps us as much on edge as it does Ben and Gus.
Alec Newman’s Ben has the marks of seniority, but his assertiveness is undermined by suggestions of deep unease; we suspect that he knows more than he is letting on either to Gus or to us. Shane Zaza’s Gus is, at times, a gormless junior, but his failure to obtain answers to the most obvious questions drives him into an anguished frenzy. Together, the actors master the tones and rhythms of Pinter’s multi-layered dialogue to near perfection.
Inevitably, this play has been likened to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but Hamilton’s meticulously detailed revival shows us that Pinter’s early work has a clear identity of its own. This short, sharp theatrical treat has been well worth waiting for.
Runs until 16 January 2021