Comics performing Pinter seem to be all the rage at the moment. Last week Bill Bailey and others opened in the sketch show Pinter’s People, and now Lee Evans is co-starring in one of Pinter’s earliest plays, the two-hander The Dumb Waiter. Fortunately, unlike the wayward aim of the former, the latter hits the target dead centre.
Written fifty years ago, The Dumb Waiter displays many of the elements of his later, more mature style: comical, fragmented dialogue, with palpable tension in the pauses in between, a strong but mysterious sense of authoritarian power. Like The Birthday Party, also written in 1957, it encapsulates Pinter’s ‘comedy of menace’, a mixture of absurdist humour and latent violence.
Like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it’s about two men waiting around for something to happen, though this time it does and the escalating suspense created in its short, hour-long duration owes more to the thriller genre than the music hall. In Peter McKintosh’s wonderfully dilapidated set, a windowless room with tiles falling off the wall, Gus and Ben lie on two uncomfortable-looking beds awaiting orders for their next job.
At first, as they chat casually about nothing in particular, they could be taken for a couple of hired labourers. However, it becomes clear later that they are actually hitmen waiting in the basement of a disused Birmingham restaurant to find out who is their next target from their criminal organisation bosses.
The atmosphere becomes more edgy after an envelope mysteriously containing 12 matches is shoved under the door, and then the dumb waiter (a small service lift) comes crashing down several times with notes for food orders. In response to these enigmatically threatening actions the two men start to bicker and lose their nerve.
Experienced Pinter performer and director Harry Burton gets the tone exactly right in his production. There are plenty of laughs along the way for example, when the men send up biscuits, crisps and chocolate in the dumb waiter – but there is always an underlying tension which turns into a sense of foreboding. Cooped up in an airless room, the men are pawns in a power game, dependent on and at the mercy of unseen forces.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Lee Evans acquits himself so well in the role of Gus, as he gave an impressive performance in Beckett’s Endgame in the West End a few years ago. There are a few moments when he uses his renowned skills as a physical comedian, such as the comic business at the start when he’s doing up his shoelaces. But he admirably suppresses some of his usual manic energy to portray a restless, nervous and none-too-bright character – the dumber of the two waiters whose constant questions and increasing doubts are making him a liability.
Jason Isaacs – best known as the villainous Malfoy pre in the Harry Potter films – is totally convincing as the senior partner Ben, attempting to conceal his irritation with Gus and his own mounting unease by burying himself in a newspaper. His terse, tight-lipped responses to Gus’s anxious loquaciousness show an experienced professional desperately trying to keep the lid on a situation rapidly spiralling out of control.