Trafalgar Studios have hosted some great plays over the past couple of years. We'd had the likes of 'Bent', 'Jane Eyre' and the RSC's 'Gunpowder' season in the main auditorium, while the small studio theatre gave us two short seasons of the mesmerising Philip York as tycoon Robert Maxwell in 'Lies Have Been Told'. And now Trafalgar Studios have come up trumps again with a stunning revival of Harold Pinter's 'The Dumb Waiter'.
Though this is one of Pinter's shorter plays - lasting only around 55 minutes - it's Pinter at his very, very best. It's a two-man drama starring in this instance Lee Evans as Gus and Jason Isaacs as Ben. And at this juncture, let me be frank. I have never been a great fan of Lee Evans's brand of humour. Maybe I just need to see more of his work, because his performance in 'The Dumb Waiter' is not only riveting and totally believable, it is a million miles from the comedian I've previously seen. In every sense, here is Lee Evans the actor, rather than Lee Evans comedian, even though he has some incredibly funny lines, thanks to Pinter's own distinctive brand of humour which manages to turn ordinary, everyday language into something that makes one want to burst into uncontrollable convulsions.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a 'dumb waiter' you'll need a little explanation. A 'dumb waiter' (or 'dumbwaiter') is a small elevator used to bring food up to a restaurant from kitchens below, and to take dirty dishes back down from the dining room. Once an essential artefact in almost every café and restaurant, they don't seem to be in quite the same evidence in the modern, chic and rather clinical eating establishments we have today. Often, dumb waiters were accompanied by a speaking tube next to them, which enabled waiters to talk to chefs in the kitchens. That bit of background over, we can proceed to the plot.
Ben and Gus are hit men who are holed-up in a dingy, disused basement kitchen, waiting to be sent out on their next job. From the start, we recognise that Gus is the more senior of the two - not the 'boss' exactly, but the foreman if you will. Even before the play starts, Gus and Ben are lying on their respective beds - Gus reading the newspaper and Ben seemingly asleep. When he gets up, Ben starts to put on his shoes - tying the knots meticulously. When he's finished, he notes with unspoken consternation, that his shoes don't feel right - he takes one off to find some paper inside, then repeats the procedure. Then it happens all over again.
Ben reads snippets from the newspaper. "A child of 8 killed a cat", he says. They both remonstrate, even though they're about to bump off a human being. Ben is repeatedly interrupted by Gus. "I want to ask you something ...", he keeps saying, to Ben's obvious irritation. And before long, we realise that Gus is not entirely comfortable with his line of work. The conversation is suddenly interrupted when an envelope is mysteriously pushed under the door. Then the dumb waiter suddenly slams down from the floor above. When the hit men explore the inside, they find an order for a meal. Bewildered yet anxious to act, they send up the few morsels of food that Gus has brought with him. More orders strangely follow, changing from typical English dishes to more exotic ones from further afield. As the orders come in, the tension between the two hit men mounts leading to physical conflict as Ben almost strangles Gus. But though there are carefully laid indicators in Pinter's script, we never anticipate the surprisingly shocking, yet almost inevitable outcome of this claustrophobic situation.
Lee Evans provides a kind of 'little boy lost' characterisation which is at once both pathetic and immensely sad. Controlled by others like a puppet on strings, here's a man who is easily satisfied with the simple things in life – a cup of tea and an Eccles cake, for example – but is adrift in a cruel, shadowy world he can't even begin to understand. On the other hand, Jason Isaacs' edgy Ben, is an insider with a direct line to the 'boss' (whoever that might be). And unlike Gus, he's prepared to brutally follow instructions without asking questions.
Brilliantly directed by Harry Burton, these two riveting performances work because they're entirely convincing, as well as complimentary. In a sense, Evans and Isaacs are two halves of the same 'dumb waiter', serving a higher authority whose motives and objectives are unfathomable.
Peter McKintosh already has some experience of designing for Pinter's work. His set for the revival of Pinter's 'The Birthday Party' in April 2005 was a masterly recreation of a seedy, run down seaside boarding house. And here, McKintosh has pulled-off another coup with the dingiest of dingy basements - complete with tiles falling off the disused kitchen wall, disintegrating lino and a monolithic, industrial looking dumb waiter that hurtles down it's framework with deafening, authoritarian efficiency.
Written in 1957 and first performed at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1960, the amazing thing about 'The Dumb Waiter' is that it still seems fresh, innovative and alarmingly current, and the comedy is still hilariously sharp. I'm not sure how many other writers could get the same kind of laughs from an audience with lines like "Soup of the day, liver and onions..." or just "Scampi". But it's not just Pinter's fascinating script that makes this comedy drama work. Exemplary direction, two finely crafted performances and definitive design, make for an award-winning production that is, quite simply, unmissable theatre.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Beautifully nuanced production ." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Menace hardly figures in this rather lightweight version, in part because of its likeable actors." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A wonderfully lean, darkly comic and suspenseful script and cracking performances." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Fine revival."