sat 23/10/2021

The Dumb Waiter, Hampstead Theatre review - menace without a hint of mirth | reviews, news & interviews

The Dumb Waiter, Hampstead Theatre review - menace without a hint of mirth

The Dumb Waiter, Hampstead Theatre review - menace without a hint of mirth

Taut Pinter revival sacrifices the play's darkly comic underlay

Gripping: Shane Zaza and Alec Newman in 'The Dumb Waiter'Helen Maybanks

Add the Hampstead Theatre to the swelling ranks of playhouses opening its doors this month, in this case with a revival well into rehearsal last spring when the first lockdown struck.

Re-cast in the interim, Alice Hamilton's 60th-anniversary production of The Dumb Waiter finds the menace in a defining play from the early career of Harold Pinter, without catching the linguistic brio that in other hands can give this same text an often-surprising lift. 

Running just under an hour, this play was last revived in London at the start of 2019, as part of a double bill and bringing to near-conclusion an ambitious Pinter season at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The Hampstead has chosen to mount The Dumb Waiter on its own, without a companion piece. The result focuses the spotlight exclusively on Hamilton and her two players, Shane Zaza and Alec Newman, excellent actors both, and on a brooding, lowering set from James Perkins suggesting the sort of environment from which one might well seek escape. Shane Zaza and Alec Newman in Pinter's 1960 play If the design puts one in mind of the airless confines of Beckett's Endgame, the writing offers an explicit debt to Waiting for Godot. Not only is the verb "wait" deployed more than once, but there's a lingering unseen presence in the boss-like Wilson whose non-appearance nonetheless seems to define the actions of Gus (Zaza) and Ben (Newman), who are engaged in an ongoing power play all their own. Their differing status is clear from the opening, wordless vignette in which Gus fusses with his shoes while Ben lies on his bed, snapping a newspaper with ominously suggestive authority. Guns are in evidence awaiting use. 

The dumb waiter itself is really the play's third character, not least when it roars into life with the force of a guillotine bringing with it highly specific demands for food ("macaroni pastitsio", if you please), whereas these men speak a more commonplace culinary vocabulary of Eccles cakes and McVities. All the while, the pair talk with gradually revelatory force of a world "upstairs", or beyond, to which they have been denied access and to "instructions" for a job that will kickstart them into action. The final image brings Gus stumbling back into Ben's midst, clearly brutalised by whatever has transpired elsewhere: the moment calls to mind the indignities heaped upon Stanley in Pinter's The Birthday Party and ensures that the production's final moments carry a real sting. 

Until that point, you yearn for a shade more attention paid to the vaudevillian quality to these hitmen's repartee, which directly anticipates similar exchanges in No Man's Land and broadens the tone of what might devolve into a one-note study in the ominous. You can see why this play over time has attracted comics like Lee Evans (a terrific Gus in 2007) who can ride the verbal riffs while landing the detonating force that exists just beneath. Zaza isn't that sort of performer and instead brings to Gus an increasingly agitated quizzicality that is neatly opposed with the stern-faced, implacable mien of Newman, a quasi-regular at this address. This reckoning with the play may not revel in the latent comic brio of the language, but it knows how to induce a chill. 

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