The Dumb Waiter
Reviewed – 8th December 2020
“keeps the signature ambiguity of Pinter’s work on the front burner”
It is fitting that Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter” should re-open at Hampstead Theatre exactly sixty years after its London premiere on the same stage; then called the Hampstead Theatre Club, housed in a parish church hall. This anniversary production was scheduled for March of this year, but an extended Pinteresque pause (caused by you-know-what) pushed it into the theatre’s winter programme. Its themes are befitting too: the two characters in the play are playing a waiting game, with mystifying and contradictory information drip fed to them from on high.
Holed up in a bleak, oppressive and windowless basement are two gunmen. Silence stretches across the first few moments, rich in meaning. Ben reads a newspaper while Gus ties his shoelaces. Ben flicks a page of the paper while Gus walks to the door, then takes his shoes off, one by one, to take out a flattened cigarette carton and matchbox. They are both useless. Later on, an envelope is mysteriously delivered containing a dozen loose matches. Why? Moments like these puncture the absurdism to reveal a darker, more ominous side to the writing in Pinter’s earlier works.
Alice Hamilton’s sensitive and stark direction enhances the sense of foreboding whilst still allowing the comedy to shine through. But the onus is on the performances. Alec Newman, as Ben and Shane Zaza, as Gus, are a cracking, Cockney double act. They brilliantly handle the vaudeville rhythms of the dialogue, lulling us into a false sense of security with poetically mundane humour before delivering a punch. Ben wants Gus to light the kettle, but Gus explains that you don’t light the kettle; you light the gas, then boil the kettle. The banter has a hilarious drunkard logic to it, but you can feel an undercurrent bubbling away. Ben appears to be keeping a lid on something and Newman perfectly evokes the strain of trying to stop it boiling over.
Both Newman and Zaza capture immaculately the balance of power and dynamics in their relationship. Although not quite the protégé, Gus still sees Ben as his mentor. An odd couple, testing each other, talking over each other, with Ben repeatedly calling the shots. And forever in the background is the dumb waiter itself, from which, bizarrely, food orders are delivered as though they are in a restaurant’s basement kitchen.
But the ‘dumb waiter’ could also be either of the two characters. Like in like Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, this is an absurdist comedy about two men waiting in a universe without meaning or purpose. But they’re not as dumb as they look. They play the comedy against the menace, the familiar against the unfamiliar, with an ambiguity that keeps you guessing.
How much does Ben know? Who is the victim? Or are they both victims of a higher order? Puppets even – with somebody else pulling the strings – both low down in the pecking order. Although Ben is slightly higher up, he is still just a follower of orders, and the symbolic crashing down of the dumb waiter is the hand that forces him to carry them out. Or does he?
A short, one act piece that keeps the signature ambiguity of Pinter’s work on the front burner, but also a deeply personal play about betrayal that is given a touching and human face by this fine acting duo.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Helen Maybanks
The Dumb Waiter
Hampstead Theatre until 16th January
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