Hampstead Theatre reopens with The Dumb Waiter celebrating its 60th Anniversary
Harold Pinter’s claustrophobic one-act play The Dumb Waiter directed by Alice Hamilton re-opens Hampstead Theatre with a socially distanced staging and an audience to match. Due to open in March this production celebrates the play’s 60th anniversary which was first staged in 1960 at the Hampstead Theatre Club.
There is no doubt that the post lockdown theatrical experience is somewhat strange, no hustle and bustle or socialising in the bar, but instead, a very well-orchestrated system which allows customers to order food and drinks and sit at tables before taking a seat in the main stage auditorium where there is an orderly seating plan with lots of empty seats to allow for social distancing.
The play lights up on a gloomy nondescript windowless basement room with peeling walls, a cold stone floor and a pair of iron hospital-style beds all artfully designed by James Perkins. It is here we are introduced to two men dressed in white shirts and braces with slicked-back hair, Ben, the elder of the two, played with a tense menacing veneer by Alec Newman, lies on the bed reading his paper whilst the seemingly naive and edgy Gus, excellently portrayed by Shane Zaza paces the room fiddling with his trouser hem and his shoes. The long-punctuated silence sets a terse and chilling atmosphere, only to be broken by Ben reading out uncomfortably bad news stories with beautifully observed comic timing. A perfect absurdist Pinteresque moment.
The paucity of information is powerfully menacing as we slowly begin to understand that Ben and Gus are professional hitmen awaiting orders to deliver their next blow. Gus the younger and more vulnerable of the two, is living on his nerves, he attempts to make tea whilst is constantly asking questions and discussing the messiness of their last victim.
Alice Hamilton’s direction is a triumph, she creates a tense and rhythmically detailed picture of what’s to come with an abiding sense of dread. The suspense racks up as the dumbwaiter creates the presence of others in the building, it falls heavily causing a loud bang breaking the quiet pacing of the men. Food orders appear randomly, each one getting more complicated, the puzzled men become increasingly on edge, bickering with each other whilst also trying to please by sending up stale Eccles cakes and rancid milk, snacks which are emptied from Gus’s bag. They are spoken to through the dumbwaiter’s speaking tube, is it here they will receive their orders?
It was such a treat to return to the theatre, The Dumb Waiter is definitely one of my all-time favourite Pinter plays and Hampstead’s opening production to their new season doesn’t disappoint. This perfect darkly comic, absurdist thriller keeps you on the edge of your seat right until the end, just exactly what we have all been waiting. It is short (just under an hour long), but I loved every theatrical minute of it.
Harold Pinter wrote twenty-nine plays including The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming and Betrayal and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.
The Dumb Waiter is at Hampstead Theatre, London, until 16 January.
THE DUMB WAITER
By Harold Pinter
Directed by Alice Hamilton
Design by James Perkins
Lighting by James Whiteside
Composition & Sound by Giles Thomas
London NW3 3EU