Harry Burton's 50th-anniversary production of this one-hour play is a measure of how far Harold Pinter has come since its premiere. Not performed here until 1960, it was staged at the Hampstead Theatre Club, for no other fringe theatre, and certainly no West End house, was interested in Pinter's plays. The Dumb Waiter was then half of a double bill, and its two characters certainly weren't played by actors as well known as Lee Evans and Jason Isaacs.
In this early play, Pinter's disquieting tone has a looseness and freshness far from the cranked-up intimidation of more recent work. Menace hardly figures in this rather lightweight version, in part because of its likeable actors. Peter McKintosh's basement, with all the charm of a long-abandoned underground toilet, is more oppressive than the mood created by the two, who wait for orders from an unknown master. The feeling they generate is less that of two hit men, as they are gradually revealed to be, than of a patient but much-tried man and his exasperating younger brother.
As Ben (Isaacs), severe in spectacles and goatee, reads and re-reads his paper, Evans's Gus puts on his shoes like someone who has lost the instructions. Evans makes an exceptionally gormless gunman, but his overstated manner - he barks his lines from the beginning and rushes a few - loses much of the character's vulnerability.
The more disciplined Ben knows the value of pretending to be wise, or at least untroubled. But the title device, a deus ex machina incarnate, blasts away his composure by slamming down like a huge guillotine blade with demands for food they do not have, shooting up, and returning ever more ravenous. The dumb waiter contributes more terror than the two men - perhaps because Pinter's style of evasive, inconsequential chatter is now so familiar that the audience is too ready to laugh to show that it gets the joke.
The production should be more enjoyable once it relaxes a bit, but the enjoyment will still come dear. For the same price, one could see, for instance, Don Juan in Soho, and, for scarcely more, Antony and Cleopatra. Was it impossible to contrive a double bill, or are the targeted patrons those who want a bit of star-spotting and then dinner at the usual time? Somehow I can't think the future of the theatre lies in accommodating people who don't really like it.
To 24 March ( www.theambassadors.com; 08700 606 632). A version of this review has already appeared in some editions of the paperReuse content