Review: The Dumb Waiter, The Print Room
Published in The Telegraph, 01.11.2013
If it were once possible for audiences to miss the scowling politics beneath Harold Pinter’s early plays, it’s not any more. They scream off the stage. To watch Pinter’s mysterious agency at work today is to remember that you are not in control of your life, let alone your world; that vast, unseen forces are pulling the strings. What once looked like an authoritarian nightmare has crept surreptitiously into existence.
In The Dumb Waiter, two of its agents are waiting in a basement hideout for their next victim to walk in unaware. Ben reads the paper. Gus fidgets and jabbers. An envelope slides under the door, then the dumb waiter, a remnant from the old café above, whirs into life, delivering orders — braised steak and chips, char sui and beansprouts — that can’t be met. If it seems like a cruel cosmic joke, you have to ask who’s playing the joker.
Ben and Gus panic because they know what they themselves are capable of. They can be ambushed just as easily as they can ambush others.
Jamie Glover, an actor starting to make careful but composed steps as a director, gives us Pinter by numbers. His vintage production — all braces and loose-leaf tea — offers no startling revelations, but everything’s in order and, sure enough, the atmosphere is nerve-jangling. Even if the play, only 55 minutes long, is self-contained, it’s still a thrill with some hearty laughs.
Andrew D Edwards’ damp, bare set uses pipes to knit the basement into an offstage world. You don’t know where they come from, where they lead or what they’re carrying. Peter Rice’s sound design pecks at your subconscious. The dumb waiter whooshes in with the rumble of a runaway minecart, only to reveal its banal, harmless contents. “Scampi?” cries Gus, jelly-legged and exasperated.
Glover’s blessed with two perfect Pinterians. Joe Armstrong finds a gawky innocence in Gus, who grows increasingly flustered, and Clive Wood was born to play Ben. He is an elephant seal of a man; still powerful, but past his prime — and all too aware of it. His cragged face has seen life and you just know his hands have crushed their fair share of windpipes. He knows his end will come and he knows exactly how. The dumb waiter’s approach brings first realisation, then resignation, as he hops back onto bed and back to his paper. Maybe that is all any of us can do.
Photograph: Nobby Clarke