Theatre: The Homecoming / Juno and the Paycock; Leicester Haymarket

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The Independent Culture
Pinter's The Homecoming takes place in the large, knocked-through sitting room of an old house in north London. Thanks to the width of the main stage and an odd design by Frank Flood, the revival at the Leicester Haymarket seems, by contrast, to be unfolding in a converted Thirties cinema foyer. That said, there is a fair amount to recommend in Ben Barnes's darkly comic, tautly paced, yet unhurried production.

What it establishes is the play's undiminished capacity to shock. For an unannounced brief visit, eldest son Teddy (Andrew Rattenburg), now an academic in America, brings over his attractive English wife to meet his family. Headed by George Sewell's fine Max, home is very much an all-male community, riven with languorous jostlings for dominance (well communicated here) and by memories of a mother who may have been a whore. The Homecoming asks us to believe that this young woman would choose to abandon her husband and her children back in the States and agree, instead, to the family's proposal of setting her up in London as a prostitute.

The production understands that the peculiar power of the play is derived from the way it both enacts a degenerate male fantasy and shows a woman seizing control and dictating her terms. There are moments with a truly kinky erotic charge, as when Jonathan Oliver's excellent Lenny proprietorially strokes Ruth's head and that of his body-builder brother Joey (Phil Curr) as the pair of them lie in a quasi-coital clinch on the couch. It's noticeable, that, at the very start of the visit, Julia Lane's Ruth is already having to restrain an impulse to touch the paternal chair of honour where she will end up enthroned as queen bee. There's a listlessness about her that betokens a sterile, failed marriage and you can see how she's stirred to life by the thuggish mock-civility and verbal sparring from Lenny.

Of course, apart from constituting one of the worst insults ever paid to American academe, the idea that she escapes to a more fulfilling existence by this insalubrious route can't help but be compromised by the fact that her decisions had been made for her by a male writer.

In the main house, an English play is staged by an Irish director. In the Haymarket studio, it is reversed in Juno and the Paycock, directed by Paul Kerryson. So that we could catch both shows on the same day, a number of critics were allowed into a private run-through of the O'Casey. To perform a play before a bunch of hacks must be about as joyous an activity as treating a team of traffic wardens to a display of advanced parking techniques, so I feel churlish in saying that this particular performance struck me as respectable, rather than inspired.

It doesn't help that a disastrous wig sabotages Dillie Keane's Juno, nor that she and Peter Forbes as Boyle look too young and unlived-in for the roles. The interior of the Dublin tenement could be less spoof at the start, too, so that the transformation wrought by the illusory legacy could have greater comic impact. But Fo Cullen is beautifully clear sighted in her desolation as Mary, Nora Connolly's Maisie Madigan lights up the stage with vulgar benevolence, and, throughout, Catholic hymns create a judiciously ironic commentary.

n To 20 Mar (Juno & the Paycock), 23 Mar (The Homecoming). Booking: 0116- 253 9797