The Homecoming, Royal Exchange, Manchester

A spruced-up, interior-designed Pinter
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The Independent Culture

On a set that looks as if it were ordered by phone from John Lewis (dark brown sofa and chairs; dark green lampshades; accent cushions; carpet), all that's out of place is Pete Postlethwaite's Max. In his baggy cardie, flat cap and slippers, he's something that belongs in the attic, not the living room.

Postlethwaite is stooped and halting. When he points his cane threateningly at his sons, he has all the menace of a petulant baby with a spoon; when he leans on it at an exaggerated angle or jubilantly waves it about, he recalls the kind of comedian who amused our grandparents. Modern man, in the form of Max's eldest son, Lenny, sits on the sofa reading the racing form and acknowledging his garrulous father only to tell him to shut up. Max rants impotently, but brightens up when his brother, Sam, enters, not because Sam is a sympathetic listener or entertaining talker, but because he is lower in the pecking order in this henless hen house.

Greg Hersov's production points up the comedy of Pinter's vision. If this Max is feeble, played out, unlike others who have suggested an old dog with sharp teeth, he brings out The Homecoming's teasing and absurdity. Any right, restless child of narrow-minded parents can laugh at the way Pinter captures the sense of being incarcerated with the dim and half-dead. Pinter also gets in a pre-emptive strike at any charges of ingratitude by showing us the self-serving and delusionary nature of Max's paternal benevolence. Max's sons – a pimp, a prat, and a fighter one doubts could win at shadow-boxing – are a living refutation of his smug pride in fatherhood. "What fun we used to have in the bath!'' Max says, glowing with sentimentality that owes more to AA Milne than to any real memories.

But though this Homecoming is not, like too many, smothered in a heavy blanket of dread, it errs in the reverse direction. The actors sound as if they're engaged in word games rather than a struggle of power and bloodlust. Michael Higgs, subtly amusing as the professor who has developed his brains at the expense of his balls, should be the winner in the circumstances. This family does not seem brutal enough to defeat him, and their triumph lacks horror and resonance. Nor does Simone Lahbib as Teddy's wife Ruth, who turns the tables on her captors, convey the erotic power the men crave and fear. Her own victory is equally implausible and inconsequential. And what the immaculate, bland set gains in sterility it loses in suggestiveness. The house should be, like Max, dilapidated and, like all his family, a haunted heart waiting for a woman's deadly touch.

To 2 March (0161-833 9833)

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