The Homecoming, Comedy Theatre, London

A dark dose of lethal laughter
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The Independent Culture

The gasps of incredulity and peals of outraged laughter coming from the young women in the row behind me served as potent proof that, 36 years after its premiere, Harold Pinter's play The Homecoming has lost none of its power to affront and fascinate. Robin Lefèvre's revival – which has transferred to London from the Gate Theatre, Dublin – is so studied and deliberate that it emphasises, to the point of parody, how breathtakingly close this piece comes to dishing up a male porno fantasy. The play's indulgence of such tendencies and its critique of them are disturbingly hard to disentangle.

The presence of Ian Holm, who is superb as the foul-tempered old widower still struggling to lord it over his north London household, highlights the resemblance between this choleric patriarch and King Lear. Only here, from the throne of a large, centrally placed armchair, it's an all-male family that he vehemently bullies – his craven chauffeur brother (a nicely prissy and self-important John Kavanagh) and the dimwit trainee boxer (Jason O'Mara) and cocky pimp (an insufficiently threatening Ian Hart) who comprise two-thirds of his progeny. If ever a home needed a woman's touch, it is surely this den of rancid testosterone and misogyny.

Cue the arrival of Ruth, the beautiful, blonde trophy wife of Max's eldest son, Teddy, a wildly improbable US-based academic, who brings her over for a surprise visit. As in porn, conveniently slack plotting engineers titillating encounters. The couple steal in at dead of the night, but despite the fact that none of his sleeping relations yet know of this woman's existence, Teddy lets her go out for a breath of air and himself retreats to bed. It's as if he actively wants her to be exposed to the sneering Lenny, who wastes no time in regaling this attractive stranger with swaggeringly casual tales of his penchant for sexual violence.

As Ruth, Lia Williams gives a performance of stunningly provocative calm and husky-voiced sexuality. It's the way she keeps her cool that turns the erotic temperature up to sauna level. Slowly crossing and uncrossing her stockinged legs or smearing a glass with her tongue before handing it back, she manages to intimate that these gestures are both a come-on and a send-up.

She seizes the initiative by dictating the terms on which she becomes the men's fantasy projection of woman as a madonna-whore. The play asks you to accept that, in order to extricate herself from an evidently unfulfilling marriage to an arid intellectual, Ruth would abandon her three children and consent to remain with the rest of the men as their sex-slave, cash-cow (going on the game in a flat in Greek Street) and replacement mother-figure. As an alternative to being a bored campus wife, this admittedly might be thought to be overdoing things a little.

But what Lefèvre's production valuably communicates is that the play remains unsettlingly agnostic on the question of whether the bizarre final arrangement is satisfactory. Hilariously irascible and firing off brilliantly timed put-downs at the start, Holm's snarling patriarch shrivels by the end into a neutered, growling cur, pathetically fearful that he is too old for Ruth's favours. And the closing madonna-whore tableau is sufficiently enigmatic to make you wonder whether this heroine's victory is more than pyrrhic. The Homecoming may sometimes seem laughable, but it is impossible to laugh off.

To 1 Dec 2001, 020-7369 1731