Alice Hamilton’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter contains
And: <<< silence >>>
It does not contain: Big Belly Laughs.
A more obvious strain of absurdist comedy – the kind you’d laugh out loud at.
And, at first, that bothered me. Because I think of The Dumb Waiter – which originally premiered at the Hampstead in 1960 – as a very funny play. ‘Funny’ in a dark, honest, disconcerting, Pintery way, that is. When I saw Martin Freeman and Pinter’s old pal Danny Dyer perform it as part of the Pinter at the Pinter Season in 2019, I remember LOL-ing in my seat like a drunken aristocrat in a 19th century novel. So I was at least half-expecting to spend the evening at the Hampstead joyfully spraying giggle spittle into my own face mask.
But I did not. And I think – having reflected on it – that’s OK. (-ish)
Trapped in a decrepit room somewhere in Birmingham, the two hitmen Ben (Alec Newman) and Gus (Shane Zaza) while away the minutes before their next job bickering and needling each other. Baby-faced Gus is full of endless questions, like the annoying little brother of the relationship, and the compulsively tidy Ben is short-tempered and irritable in his replies. James Perkins’ set design captures the men’s enclosure as a grimy, battered basement complete with every estate agent’s favourite feature: a multi-channel drain bang in the middle of the floor. Halfway through their repetitive waiting game, the old dumb waiter cranks into action and starts sending up orders for food. Only Ben and Gus don’t have any food to send, apart from a few crusty rations including half a pint of sour milk and a stale Eccles cake.
Newman and Zaza deliver the dead-beat lines with a notable seriousness. They don’t obviously play them for laughs – which is fine, I think – although the pitter-patter of Pinter’s hailstorm pacing is, at times, a little lacking. Instead, what you get are awkward silences, low-growling discord and that other Pinteresque hallmark: menace. The omniscient but unidentified boss the hitmen await orders from hangs over everything, becoming more magnified as a threat the longer the men kill time rather than other people. The tension between Ben and Gus also feels more apparent when Ben’s crankiness isn’t offset by any suggestion of banter or cockney wit.
The only problem with losing the comedy and upping the low-build terror is that it eliminates the potential for comedy to be a route into the truths underlying The Dumb Waiter (the two manipulated men taking orders from an uncaring – murderous – controller and the doomed fate of the man who dares to ask questions). Comedy and laughter are slippery, complex things to unpick. It’s not as simple as thinking laughter equals getting a kick out of a person’s bad experience; there’s the oddly cathartic exhalation of laughing in recognition of something real and terrible, for example. Or that intensely human howl that sits at the intersection of laughing and crying – the painful yelp of humanity Chekhov got so right. So although there’s something to be said for ramping up the tension, delivering the menace-without-the-comedy makes Pinter a little bit flatter, a little less interesting, and a little less Pinter.
The Dumb Waiter is on at Hampstead Theatre until 16th January 2020. More info and tickets here.