Theatre review: The Dumb Waiter

There's plenty of mirth and menace in this Pinter revival


This is the second time in as many months that a Harold Pinter play has heralded a British theatre’s return to live performance. Bath’s Theatre Royal chose the Nobel laureate’s Betrayal while Hampstead have gone for an earlier work first seen at the theatre in 1960.

The play’s genius is simple. Two hitmen — here played by Alec Newman and Shane Zaza — wait in the basement of a large house in Birmingham for orders.

Gus (Zaza) and Ben kill time before their next murder with random small talk. The length of their stay is implied by two single barrack-like beds on which the two while away the vacant hours.

The windowless, octagonal room (design, James Perkins) in which all the action — and inaction — takes place is as sinister as a torture cell. The peeling wallpaper is the colour of concrete. And whatever the original purpose of the drainage channels in the bare brick floor, the sense gathers that they will be useful when the waiting ends and things get bloody.

As so often with Pinter, questions hover over the play. But whereas in say The Birthday Party, in which the gangster Goldberg seems to know all the answers, here Gus and Ben are as ignorant as the audience as to whom they have been brought to this place to kill, and why.

The fascination of the piece lies in the contrast between the two protagonists — between Gus’s nervous energy and Ben’s deadpan professionalism. The latter cracks when Gus says of their previous victim “I’ve been thinking about that girl,” at which point Ben’s suppressed humanity begins to show itself.

The best moments in Alice Hamilton’s production are comic. And when Gus and Ben joust over which turn of phrase is in common usage (is it A “light the kettle” or B “put the kettle on”) Zaza and Newman bring to mind Abbott and Costello as they tussle over the meaning of a sentence. Meanwhile surreal messages drop into the room as if the two are the subject of a social experiment. They arrive via the dumb waiter lift in the form of restaurant orders instead of the expected instruction to kill.

Both actors handle the menace and mirth well, switching from one to the other with rising panic. Yet Hamilton’s mostly solid production misses opportunities to ratchet up the tension. A recent production of the play starring Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer fomented a sense that Dyer’s Ben knew more about the next victim’s identity than did Freeman’s Gus. The resulting suspicion between them fostered the possibility that the two might kill each other before they murder anyone else. Also problematic here is that the timing of the big reveal at the end of the play is as off as a fluffed punchline.

Still, the era in which this production has been mounted needs to be taken into account. Plans to open earlier in the year were aborted by the second lockdown just before opening night. And although the show is imperfect, it is hugely comforting to see Hampstead leading the fightback against Covid, and with a playwright whose work reassuringly reminds us of pre-pandemic life. Although what Pinter would make of a world in which his work is more comforting than it is disturbing is worth a long ponder.

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