The Dumb Waiter

Tue 24th – Sat 28th January 2012

reviews

Matthew Clayton

at 02:43 on 25th Jan 2012

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If you can spare the time to read at least my first paragraph, I want you to avert your eyes from those stars for a moment and listen to some very good reasons to come and see this play. The Dumb Waiter is an early and developmentally important masterpiece by a writer of towering genius. This is a chance to see it performed in very capable theatrical hands, with properly thought-out characterisation, and a consistent professionalism of approach. It lasts less than an hour. Measuring this production up on a ‘how-badly-you-need-to-see-this-play-ometer’, I’d give this a score of ‘Think Hard’. The star-rating of three (which under CambridgeTheatreReview's rating-descriptors equals ‘good’, but in the tortured mess that is the thesp-brain equals either 'crushing failure' or ‘[reviewer had deep personal issues] ’) really only reflects the extent to which the production realised the very particular potential inherent in the script.

The blurb for the production gets it spot on: the words ‘a masterclass in taut dialogue and shifty, shifting dynamics’ don’t just boost my word count, they describe a quality in the text of the play which these talented actors were quite obviously aiming for, but in the final analysis missed. Just when Pinter lets us think we understand the two hired assassins in front of us, they begin to show unexpected sides to their personalities that force us to constantly re-consider our view of them, right up until the final moment of the play and then beyond.

The groundwork was all there. George Johnston’s Gus in particular made the ‘shift’ from slow-witted sidekick to fumbling sceptic and, finally, to a man in crisis. But of this latter side we saw too much too soon. His perfunctory reaction to Ben’s readings of violent news stories right at the start diminished the dramatic impact of the empty re-rehearsal of this ritual just before the end. Luka Krsljanin expertly pinned down the blind faith in authority and respectability displayed by Ben – qualities which led Michael Billington to see in the character a vision of ‘the contract killer as good bourgeois citizen’. His line about woodwork and model boats got the laugh it deserved, and this comedy was translated into something much more frightening by the obsequious way in which he talked down the speaking tube after the entrance of The Dumb Waiter itself. The possibility that, as ‘senior partner’ of the duo, Ben might be hiding something from Gus about the precise nature of pair’s assignment was explored in a few moments of chilling insight. It was not reflected in most of Krsljanin’s performance, however, and this was part of the reason why the play lacked Pinter’s entirely unique brand of tension.

Some fantastic design details deserve a mention, though I’m not sure exactly who should get the credit for them – whether Harry Mitchell, the Director, or his producers Ami Jones and Anna Isaac. Gus’s bed was badly made-up while Ben’s was pristine (encouraging us to think twice, perhaps, about Gus’s postulation about a previous bed-occupant and source of unfamiliar pong). Ben’s clothes reflected perfectly the petty authoritarianism of his character, suggesting perhaps a shopkeeper or the domineering head of a household. The activity of The Dumb Waiter was accompanied by a haunting whistle, contrasting nicely with the farce surrounding the mysterious messages which the machine delivers from on high. These are all examples of an attention to detail that really made me think, even if it didn’t always help to make me feel. There was also a super-cool sound and lighting effect at the beginning and end.

If you thought you’d made it through a whole Pinter review that didn’t bring up the bloody pauses, I’ll disappoint you by mentioning the silence that closes the play. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll tell you that it’s a moment which is supposed to force us to totally reconsider everything that came before, to grip our imaginations and not let go of them until we complain that it’s hurting a bit. It didn’t quite do all this, and I think this was pretty evident in that other more banal silence – the ‘do we clap now?’ silence – which immediately followed it. Apart from suggesting that it possibly wasn’t long enough to sink in, I can’t really say why this was the case – which makes me wonder whether on another night with a different audience the pair might really have pulled it off. If so, then that’s just one more reason to get a ticket and see this powerful little play for yourself.

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Lucie Elven

at 10:07 on 25th Jan 2012

1agrees

0disagrees

‘What’s one thing to do with another?’ Ben runs headlong into Gus’ worst fear. Though Gus thinks he believes his turn of phrase is correct, that no one is upstairs, and his version of events regarding 'the Villa’s' disputed penalty, he can’t be sure of these or that he is, as he claims, 'an ardent football fan'.

The Corpus Playroom might have been purpose built for ‘The Dumb Waiter’. Two beds can be placed at a right angle as Pinter stipulated they should be, and at the centre, in the nook of the ‘L’, is the dumb waiter itself (built by ‘Master Carpenter’ Leo Parker-Rees). Not being able to see half of the people in the room suits the play, which is lucky and deservedly so. Because I don’t know if Christmas has made me a baying yeasayer, but I am convinced that all of the decisions Harry Michell did make were excellent.

Michell let the text get the laughs, rather than asking Johnston and Krsljanin to deliver some sort of Noel Coward(-ly) repartee, and he didn’t dress either character up as Harold Pinter, as seemed to happen in ‘The Lover’ last term. The more realistic the speech, the more absurd the result: the climaxes of dialogue put pressure on the most mundane of pastries, the Eccles cake. The result is past a joke but it makes you laugh.

Both actors also deserve a song and dance – Johnston played a younger, faltering Gus, whose focus led him to speak so automatically that his lines ran into Krsljanin’s, when Ben dropped his didactic patrician’s manner. The play can veer into two handed poetry in which characters swap one flow of undertext for another, before one of them snaps out of it (Ben puts an end to his inadvertent lesson on plumbing with the definitive ‘Ballcock’). This is able directing, confident acting, and carpentry which I can’t expertly assess, but which seemed more than adequate. It’s only forty minutes long, if that.

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