There's something deeply unsettling about Pinter's 1965 play that is both claustrophobic and brutal. With a cast of deeply flawed characters, there's hardly a redeeming feature to be had amongst the lot of them, and you ultimately feel like a voyeur at a road traffic accident. Difficult to watch but harder to look away.
Jamie Lloyd's production is part expressive, part realistic and part absurdist which goes some distance in setting the tone for a more contemporary view of the drama, despite the firm 1960s setting. Attention has been paid to the text, from Ruth's final tableau which shows her sat relaxed in the central position of the house as the men around her are reduced to groaning, to Soutra Gilmour's set, which encloses the characters in 'frame-like arches' with not just the back wall removed, but all solid structures. Lloyd uses a distinct soundscape of crescendos and swells alongside snatches of light to direct the audience, and the overall effect remains refreshing and relevant to a modern audience, especially those coming to the play, or Pinter's work for the first time.
The highly charged masculine atmosphere is successfully created, albeit with broad brush strokes with some of the characterisation warranting further exploration. Since the departure of the female presence in the family, Keith Allen's Sam feels more effeminate and somewhat repressed – remaining the only member of the family who doesn't fantasise about taking their turn with Ruth. It's a powerful distinction, and something that works, giving a divided edge to the family yet never overwhelming or upstaging the basic functions of the drama.
There are some solid performances all round, with John Simm's Lenny holding court most successfully. It is his interchanges, in particular his scene with Ruth that holds most of the weight in the production, and provides the easiest access point into their tightly knit domestic world. Ron Cook's Max is suitably patriarchal but risks slipping into a combination of Del Boy Trotter and The Godfather, and never feels like he has the complete control over his sons.
Gemma Chan's Ruth is gorgeously seductive, yet spectacularly underplayed. Her strength of character isn't fully apparent until the second act, and she leaves the audience never quite knowing how she'll react to the proposition. At times she appears sexless, almost too modern for the environment in which she has entered, but by the final tableau there's no question as to who is in charge.
There's some work to be done on physicality across the whole ensemble, from the brief moments of stage fighting that don't quite land as they should to Cook's attempts at walking with a stick, yet gliding effortlessly up and down stairs. Lloyd has created a strong pace to the production, with few Pinteresque pauses for the text to indulge, and the action hurtles from scene to scene, aided by the bare design that provides a deliberately twisted perspective.
The frustrations with the play are mainly deliberate, and Lloyd quite rightly resists the temptation to expand on or add to the brief explanations or lack of natural reactions. There's very little commentary on the action which in may ways is refreshing – the text never feels polemical, instead the audience form their own reaction to the proposition. Some merely found it laughable and highly amusing, whilst others around me were audibly disgusted, proving that passionate debate is often the mark of the most important and relevant theatre.
"The laurels go to John Simm, a superbly toxic Lenny: he’s one of those actors who can convey menace with a fixed smile, whose gaze can get its object in an invisible headlock. It’s worth seeing for him, and of course to pay respects to Harold Pinter, dead these seven years."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
"Precisely because Pinter never moralises about or resolves the situation, it is a play that, when impeccably acted as here, continues to haunt our dreams."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"If misery is your bag, you will be in your element. But where is the enemy? I prefer Pinter when he gives us an outer tyranny. This family is just self-limiting. That’s socialism for you, perhaps."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"The production doesn’t probe the very depths of Pinter’s dark reservoir of menace, but it’s a claustrophobic and tense account of a play that retains its capacity to shock."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard