At first sight these paired two-handers from 1957/8 seem poles apart. The protagonists of A Slight Ache are upper middle-class stockbroker belt denizens Flora (Gemma Whelan) and Edward (John Heffernan), complete with precisely clipped 50s vowels. In The Dumb Waiter…
I saw the original production of Harold Pinter’s dark, multi-award-winning comedy as a precocious, theatre-mad teenager. I wouldn't have been allowed near it if it had been a film, it would have been x-rated in those days for sure! The homecoming of the title is the return to the flinty bosom of his East End family of Teddy, a college lecturer Stateside with a murky past in this all-male household ruled over by retired butcher Max. Teddy brings home the, er, "bacon" in the alluring shape of Ruth, his wife of five years. The power play between the brothers, their father and above all between Ruth and her in-laws is the meat of the play. I particularly remember Ian Holm, sinister and dangerous as Lenny the pimp; and Vivien Merchant, Pinter’s first wife, who created the role of Ruth, and the way she crossed her legs causing shock waves to ripple through the theatre – and I don't mean because of the static in her nylons…
Gemma Chan makes the role of Ruth her own in Jamie Lloyd’s spare and scabrously funny production. She has extraordinarily precise body language, at once apparently passive, exposed, vulnerable even, and yet enigmatic – you wonder what is running through her mind as she takes a lone night stroll outside her husband’s family home. You wait uncomfortably for a reaction when she meets these unlovable foul-mouthed Londoners (Max habitually refers to all women, including his late wife, as bitches and worse), enduring their bullying and menacing in apparently dignified silence. Then there is that pivotal see-saw moment where the power shifts. It is suddenly obvious that Ruth has the measure of John Simm’s predatory Lenny. In her hands, the glass of water Pinter gives her as a bargaining chip turns not into wine, but a dangerous, potential aphrodisiac.
Although there are scenes when director Jamie Lloyd (who worked with Pinter himself on productions of his plays) brilliantly fields the whole dysfunctional family, it’s the tussles in those duologues, precisely calibrated by both actors and director, that are the guilty pleasures for me. Every family member is on the take, using and abusing each other is second nature and the language is shocking and brutal, but it’s the way this family communicates and it’s almost as if the care they take to choose their epithets is the way they show they care.
John Simm and Ron Cook open the play with cross-generational sparring that sets the tone and they create a magnificently vile father and son relationship. Cook is all ineffectual, bullying bluster and Simm is immediately silky and menacing – a terrific exponent of Pinter. Gary Kemp’s Teddy is a fine study in disintegration from lofty academic to his old place low in the pecking order in this disreputable band of brothers. Keith Allen’s Sam, a chauffeur by trade, intimates why he might be a bachelor, though this can never be articulated in this testosterone-fuelled household, where youngest brother Joey is a failing boxer (effectively ineffectual in John Macmillan’s almost touching performance). This starry ensemble cast works together wonderfully to create Pinter’s claustrophobic world on Soutra Gilmour’s clever set – a sparsely furnished room dominated by Dad’s ancient armchair. Lighting designer Richard Howell transforms the realism into what looks a terrifying 3D projection that traps the characters in a blood red frame, to sound designer George Dennis’ perfect, brash soundtrack.
Pinter would have been proud of his amanuensis!
By Judi Herman
'The Homecoming' runs until 13 February 2016, 7.30pm & 2.30pm, £29.50-£69.50, at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, SW1A 2DY; 0844 871 7632. www.atgtickets.com