“All you do is wait, eh? Half the time he doesn’t even bother to put in an appearance”. Pinter’s one-acter The Dumb Waiter is his most Godotesque play, as two oddball characters fiddle with their shoes, bicker and banter like a music-hall double act and wait nervously for something to happen.
The two hitmen’s purgatorial stay in a seedy Birmingham room is punctuated by some pretty absurd comedy when the dumb waiter, a relic of an earlier incarnation as a downmarket café, bursts into life with an increasingly demanding flood of food orders, and some unseen outside power plays cat and mouse with them.
Often part of a double bill, the 50-minute two-hander is a short, sharp evening when played alone and, in director Jamie Glover’s hands, a quality one. Clive Wood and Joe Armstrong are the odd couple thrown together on another grim job, whiling away the hours before the kill by reading snippets of bizarre everyday incidents from the newspaper, arguing over the semantics of tea-making and anticipating the unavoidable.
Except the play’s closing moments are not so inevitable. As with many of Pinter’s plays, there’s little sense of an over-riding arch to the play, rather a great idea for an atmospheric situation that leads into a slightly contrived denouement because the writer wasn’t quite sure how to end it. Written around the time that Pinter was churning out revue-pieces, there’s a sketchy feel to a work that came early in the playwright’s career (it’s contemporaneous with The Birthday Party and The Room) but which contains many of his enduring themes in somewhat under-developed form.
Wood and Armstrong are excellent as the pair of far from smooth operators and they contrast nicely: the older man bullying and nervous, with a hint of vulnerability, and the younger a bundle of anxious energy, while fear stalks them both.
Designer Andrew D Edwards provides a box of grimy walls run through with crusty pipes that clank ominously, and the presence of an external power watching and toying with them is palpable. The Dumb Waiter is a short work that skillfully compresses Pinter’s unique blend of threat and absurdity and the Print Room’s intimate auditorium provides the perfect space for it.