First Night: The Dumb Waiter, Trafalgar Studios, London

Hitmen forget to pack menace

By Rhoda Koenig
Friday 09 February 2007 01:40

Harry Burton's 50th-anniversary production of this one-act play is a measure of how far Harold Pinter has come since its premiere. Not performed here until 1960 - its premiere took place in Germany - it was done at the Hampstead Theatre Club, for no fringe theatre closer to the centre of town, and certainly no West End house, was interested in Pinter's odd, creepy plays.

The Dumb Waiter was then half of a double bill and its two leads 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. Indeed, menace hardly figures in this rather lightweight version, in part because of its likeable actors.

Peter McKintosh's basement, a room with all the charm of a long-abandoned underground toilet, is actually more oppressive than the mood created by the two, who wait for orders of an unknown kind from an unknown master. Indeed, the feeling they generate is less that of two hitmen, as they are gradually revealed to be, than of a patient but much-tried man and his exasperating younger brother.

As Ben (Isaacs), reads and rereads his paper to kill time, Evans's Gus puts on his shoes like someone who has lost the instructions. Squinting into each one like a man peering into a tunnel, he looks up at the fluorescent light as if it will clarify matters and then retrieves a forgotten object from their toes. 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. He doesn't have enough of the whininess of a younger brother fearing, with good reason, that he'll be ignored.

The more disciplined and experienced 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. But 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 it gets the nasty joke. At least this audience was.

The production should become 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. Was it impossible to contrive a double bill, or are the targeted patrons those who will be content with a bit of their favourite comedian and then want dinner? Somehow I can't think the future of the theatre lies in accommodating people who don't really like it.

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