mon 18/10/2021

The Dumb Waiter, Old Vic: In Camera review - more in sorrow than in anger | reviews, news & interviews

The Dumb Waiter, Old Vic: In Camera review - more in sorrow than in anger

The Dumb Waiter, Old Vic: In Camera review - more in sorrow than in anger

Thoughtful and funny revival of Pinter's two-hander

Ben (David Thewlis) and Gus (Daniel Mays) await orders Manuel Harlan

Pinter wrote The Dumb Waiter in 1957 (although it wasn't seen in London until 1960) the year before The Birthday Party received its notorious première at the Lyric Hammersmith. When a friend described them both as political plays, about power and victimisation, the playwright readily agreed.

And it is this aspect of the 50-minute, one-act piece that director Jeremy Herrin foregrounds.

Ben and Gus are two hit men waiting in a Birmingham basement for their latest victim to arrive. The room is furnished merely with two single beds between which is the dumb waiter of the title (although there is an obvious pun here in that both men are obliged to wait and both are, to a greater or lesser extent, lacking information and agency). Their surroundings are basic, in Hyemi Shin's stark, grey design especially so. When the dumb waiter judders into action it delivers requests for meals impossible for the pair to deliver; there is a kitchen off to the side, but no means of lighting the gas let alone any food. Someone, it seems, is not only watching, but is having a laugh at their expense.

The nature of the partnership is of central importance. Ben is the senior in authority and age, while Gus is chatty, questioning, expecting to take orders from Ben as well as the "Wilson" who never appears. In some productions they are the equivalent of a bickering married couple, companionable when fussing about, for instance, whether it is correct to say "Light the kettle"or "Put on the kettle". In this case the relationship is closer to father and son: David Thewlis's Ben is exasperated by Daniel Mays's untidy, baby-faced Gus, but from the start his expression is clouded with foreboding about what he must do. For his part, Mays's Gus seems to have more than an inkling, an idea not properly formed, that this is no ordinary mission. Of course, it is all too easy to read such things into the performance of a text which has become familiar - there have been frequent revivals, most recently only a few months ago at Hampstead - but in this case the result yields a greater, less showy depth.

Mays, a fine, damaged Aston in The Caretaker at the Old Vic a few years ago, relishes the comic aspects, even clownishness, of Gus. Thewlis has the more sombre role, the sad-faced straight man.

Pinter's youthful experience of acting in potboiler thrillers combined with his love of music hall to lay the foundations for what the critic Irving Wardle tagged perceptively "comedies of menace". The shorthand serves in this case as ever, but the far greater menace is very clearly outside the room. Both those within it are victims, both ready to obey unpalatable orders and accept what is meted out to them, but, under Herrin's direction, without relish. Their lack of ability or will to question their fate is far more chilling than any tension or threat acted out between the two men.

The presence of cameras is acknowledged in this special streaming, one of the Old Vic's series during the pandemic months, as we see Gus's face poking outside the door and inside the shaft of the dumb waiter. The last view shows, in the background, some members of the small audience, once again part of the full theatre experience. There are, however, two more opportunities to see this production at home.

@heathermneill

David Thewlis's Ben is exasperated by Daniel Mays's untidy, baby-faced Gus, but from the start his expression is clouded with foreboding

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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