Harold Pinter's 1960 masterpiece is his most performed and arguably most loved work. Blending elements of Theatre of the Absurd with realism it's a difficult piece to execute not only for the three actors but also the wider creative team who have the responsibility of guiding an audience's perceptions on the wider themes of the drama.
Pinter's language is exquisite throughout, and all three performers find the rhythms, pulses and variety of pace necessary to keep the wordplay driving and never overly discursive. Each character is specifically and skilfully defined through voice, accent and behaviour that each energy on stage is complimentary and never battling for attention. Whilst the eponymous role of Davies is historically considered to be the star vehicle, the joy of Warchus' production is how it balances all three roles and delivers a knock-out ensemble performance.
Timothy Spall gives a fine physical performance as Davies that takes some time to warm up. There are moments where he feels overly mannered and falls back on his comedic roots, pushing the role too far in one direction, hamming up certain elements of the character that verge very close to pastiche. He handles the language well, maintaining command between the three characters and responding to his function as catalyst as the intruder. At times it's as mumbling as an episode of 'Poldark', and from the Dress Circle is sometimes a strain to hear.
George MacKay gives a fire-cracking performance as Mick, injecting a clear shift in energy and managing to feel both threatening and compassionate simultaneously, hiding the character's somewhat darker routes. His speech is impeccable, and he handles the moments of speedy delivery with distinct skill and drive that further draw out Pinter's genius. He is equally matched by Daniel Mays' introverted and utterly compelling performance as Ashton who manages to capture that sense of isolation and vulnerability and project it through both speech and movement. His calmness settles the stage and the sparseness in his dialogue leaves much unsaid, making him the most absorbing of the trio. His speech before the interval where he tells Davies about his treatment and electro-shock therapy was perfectly delivered, proving a harrowing, yet utterly calm reflection of his condition.
Rob Howell's expertly executed naturalistic set provides an appropriate canvas for the language, resisting the temptation to be expressive or experimental. The whole playing space grounds the piece within a realistic framework, from the constant rain drops at the window to rising damp and peeling ceiling that in turn allows Pinter's electric language to ricochet around the space and resonate within even the darkest, dampest corners. Hugh Vanstone's lighting design beautifully shifts from day to night, giving much needed specificity to the action without being over obtrusive.
There's a disappointing ringtone like quality in Gary Yershon's original score that accompanies the scene breaks, whilst enhancing the atmosphere in composition feels oddly produced and too computerised.
Pinter's fascination with space and London in particular is apparent throughout the play, and feels oddly comforting amongst an otherwise unsettling piece. The specificity in terms of geographical locations including bus routes help ground the play for an audience, and allows much of humour to appear balanced. Whilst the overall outlook is somewhat disturbing and in many ways fairly bleak, Warchus balances the humanity with a good dose of humour, so the play never feels too acerbic. and a strong sense of mischief between all three characters keeps it moving. There are questions to be asked, but you find yourself enjoying the banter between the characters so much that these wash over your subconscious. It's only when you walk away from the theatre considering what you've seen that you realise Pinter's brutal assessment on life.
"Warchus’s production, performed inside a wonderfully dilapidated set by Rob Howell, treats the play less as a microcosmic study of power-politics and more as a strange comedy about a trio of deluded outsiders.."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Worth looking in on, then, but with less actorly decoration, we’d get the unvarnished genius of the thing."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"The rich performances make this an unsettling portrait of claustrophobic domesticity and its capacity to warp the mind and the soul."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard