Pinter, the greatest of modern playwrights, is probably – and rather sadly – best known for his love of a good pause. Well there have been plenty involved in this production of one of his most brilliant plays, which represents both a birthday party and a homecoming (although it is neither The Birthday Party or The Homecoming). The Dumb Waiter returns to the home of its premier, the Hampstead Theatre, 60 years on, and it’s lost none of its enigmatic power or desert-dry humour.
Originally slated to open in the spring, coronavirus has been jabbing at the pause button for months, and even as it finally opens, the looming threat of Tier 3 restrictions could bring that curtain swinging shut once more.
That would be a huge shame, because this two man play about a pair of hitmen passing time in a dingy basement is a wonderful imagining of Pinter’s classic, with the nervous young Gus (Shane Zaza) especially watchable as his evening is thrown into chaos by a series of food orders mysteriously delivered by the titular dumb waiter.
Ben (Alec Newman), the ostensibly higher-ranking of the pair, soon becomes just as hysterical, with his veneer of working class machismo crumbling as the orders come raining down from above.
The last time I saw this play was as part of Jamie Lloyd’s excellent season of Pinter’s short works, with Danny Dyer appearing opposite Martin Freeman, and while this version lacks the star-power of that production (as well as the personal significance of Dyer being, rather unexpectedly, a personal friend and protege of Harold Pinter), Zaza and Newman have a wonderfully awkward chemistry.
There’s a clear skewering of the class system at work, with the pair sent into nervous conniptions at the thought they cannot honour the dumb waiter’s demands; when “braised beef, liver and onions, scampi” is ordered, they instead send up a packet of crisps Gus had been saving.
Quite how things play out as the 55-minute play nears its conclusion is less clear, although the final blow is as dreadful and surreal as ever. Trying to decode Pinter is a somewhat futile exercise anyway – these aren’t puzzle boxes to be carefully solved, rather their power lies in a murkier realm of uneasy sensations and troubling emotions (they skew more towards David Lynch than they do Christopher Nolan, to use a modern parallel).
What’s for sure is this is a production well worth seeing, and given the already limited seating thanks to social distancing and the possibility that it may have to hit pause yet again, I suggest you pick up a ticket sooner rather than later.