There is something apt about the protracted gestation of this Harold Pinter revival. Initially programmed as a 60th-anniversary production and due to open in March with an entirely different cast, Hampstead Theatre’s production of The Dumb Waiter has undergone two postponements (or pauses, if you will) over the course of its eight-month closure.
Now, finally performed on the socially distanced main stage space, The Dumb Waiter is fittingly, uncannily claustrophobic. Pinter’s one-act play, first performed in 1960 at the Hampstead Theatre Club and directed here by Alice Hamilton, concerns two men in a nondescript room (James Perkins’ windowless, dodecagon design feeling appropriately oppressive) in an anonymous city, waiting for a call to an undisclosed job. The younger, Gus (Shane Zaza), asks incessant questions of the elder, Ben (Alec Newman). They sit, they talk about making tea, they argue about semantics, they wonder about their omniscient, unseen boss, and they fuss over the ominous, gaping dumb waiter in the centre of the room.
As is always the case with Pinter, the men’s purpose is not immediately apparent, though there is a seam of threat running through the banal patter – we can only glean their profession through oblique references to a previous job (“It was a mess though, wasn’t it? What a mess”), glimpses of guns held in pockets and stowed under pillows, and occasionally startling, brutal images. There is a sense of degradation throughout the production – from the peeling, cracked wallpaper to the creeping sense that the two men are slowly being broken down, inch by inch, by a job and system that does not care for them.
Hamilton’s direction is meticulous and measured, finding well-sketched character details in the way Ben carefully polishes his gun with a dedicated kit, while Gus gives his a cursory, distracted rub against his bedsheets. Zaza and Newman play off each other deftly, with Zaza never leaning too much into Gus’s anxious energy and instead finding a real thoughtfulness to his moral crisis. Newman too brings a practised steadiness to Ben that ever so slowly begins to chip away, like paint off a wall. They play off each other nicely, finding the music in Pinter’s elliptical rhythms, always playing at the knife’s edge of farce without ever fully falling into it.
But for all the care and reverence it has for the text, Hamilton’s production can sometimes feel a little prosaic and lacking in the requisite tension – until its final stretch, when Ben and Gus really begin to strain at their seams. It’s a production that hammers down into the grey mundanity of the two men’s lives, and it does suffer somewhat as a result. At one point, Perkins’ design reveals a corridor leading offstage which appears strangely heightened and oddly slanted – a visual trick that lends the production a sense of real queasiness that I wish it had leant into more. A solid, smart revival, even if it never feels quite as sinister as it should.
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