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'The Homecoming' review — Harold Pinter's provocative play remains both menacing and elliptical

Read our three-star review of The Homecoming, starring Jared Harris, Joe Cole, and Lisa Diveney, currently in performances at the Young Vic to 27 January.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

We haven’t had much Harold Pinter of late, at least not since Jamie Lloyd closed out his remarkable Pinter at the Pinter season prior to the pandemic. So it feels right to welcome a new production of The Homecoming, the Tony-winning play first seen in London in 1965 that really cemented the Nobel Laureate’s reputation on the international map.

The play, even in as variable a revival as the one now at the Young Vic, remains as mysterious as ever: a two-hour provocation that may prove rough sailing for some in today’s hyper-sensitised times but is worth attention for a linguistic command that is both elliptical and energising.

How are we to read the story of an all-male London brood upended by the unexpected appearance of the wife of one of three very different sons, who comes for a visit with her expatriate husband only to end up ruling the roost?

Some will chafe at the apparent misogyny of a narrative that can be seen to objectify the newly arrived Ruth (here played by Lisa Diveney) as a sexual object available for barter, purchase, and who knows what else. Or perhaps Pinter is cunning enough to give Ruth an authority all her own, as evidenced by a final tableau in which the bellicose men are quite literally brought low in her presence.

Whatever one’s response to the sexual dynamics, The Homecoming can’t help but haunt playgoers alive to its implicit menace. Only in Pinter would reference to “a casual tuck-up” sound like anything but, within a testosterone-fuelled milieu that Sally Ferguson’s lighting seizes upon to single out various high-definition face-offs.

Aggression and anger shadow this play throughout and certainly define the director Matthew Dunster’s approach to it, which rides waves of fury that I didn’t expect – without at the same time fully savouring the silences that separate Pinter out from the pack. (One should mention in fairness a silence at the very outset that takes its own sweet time before it is broken.)

I’ve rarely encountered a growlier Max, the scolding widower at this play’s dark heart, than Jared Harris offers this time round. This fine actor’s return to the London stage is commanding, to be sure, but might land more definitively were Harris less inclined to sudden outbursts of rage that often come at the expense of sense.

Joe Cole, like Harris and Diveney a TV name amongst a notably starry cast, follows suit with so overheated a portrayal of Max’s combative middle son Lenny that I began to wonder if the implication was that the character was off his meds.

Ruth’s arrival is partnered with a cool-eyed contempt at odds with this character’s usual minx-like allure. As played by Diveney, this Ruth seems to be carefully marking time before she can meet head-on the toxic masculinity before her: a black-booted panther waiting to pounce.

The production would benefit from greater quiet. Jazz, played at top volume upon entering the auditorium and then intermittently throughout, seems the wrong soundscape for this house of secrets, not the least of which involves the psychic bequest of the sons’ long-dead mother – and also the sexuality of Max’s younger brother, Sam, a chauffeur whom Nicolas Tennant plays with a thrilling amalgam of tenderness and wit: his is the performance of the evening.

In context, you lean even more readily into Robert Emms’s Teddy, the inscrutable son who got away to America and a successful career in academia. His contretemps with Lenny about a cheese roll remains a glory and is beautifully played by both Emms and Cole, and when Teddy exits, perhaps never to darken the place of his childhood again, you’re left with the prospect of a homecoming that for all the textual machismo grants the play’s lone woman the upper hand.

The Homecoming is at the Young Vic through 27 January. Book The Homecoming tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The Homecoming. (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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