In Harold Pinter’s work, dialogue, setting and action hover uneasily in a strange space between the naturalistic and the absurd. Throughout The Dumb Waiter’s single act we watch two hitmen wait in a windowless room. They have been waiting all day and the monotony is only broken when an envelope of matches is slipped under the door and a menu suddenly appears through the titular dumb waiter.
It is a slippery play, wriggling out of whatever meanings, allegories or historical frames of reference you might like to apply. The men talk about the football, read the tabloids and argue about the semantics of “lighting” a kettle, but the dialogue is circular and disjointed. Everything only makes sense in the immediate present, with ideas and images drifting in and becoming fixed in the strangely unconscious way that dream narratives take shape. It feels real and grounded only until you try and pin it down. What does comes through clearly is an experience of power. The power dynamics of the play are at once interpersonal and distant; two men bickering over seniority and a higher authority giving strange instructions through a speaking trumpet. Both power systems alienate and both threaten violence. It is this threat that builds suspense, a suspense that keeps you at the edge of your seat as you watch two men wait in an empty room.
Hampstead was the first UK theatre to stage the play in 1960 and this 60th anniversary production is another first, as live theatre slowly returns from its long hiatus. The theatre staff have gone to great lengths to ensure the safety of their audience and with temperature checks, sparse seating and mandatory mask wearing, this was one of the most COVID-conscious venues I have seen. This was welcome, because it allowed the audience to focus on what is a great production. Alec Newman (Ben) and Shane Zaza (Gus) put in excellent performances, but Alice Hamilton’s staging also imbues meaning and drama into every movement and each of the play’s long silences. The circular set, with its awkwardly placed beds and peeling wallpaper show this off to full effect. I particularly liked the decision to hide the dumb waiter in the peeling wallpaper. The prop’s sudden emergence and the character’s reactions are unsettling in just the right way.
It is tempting to frame this production as a lockdown parable. And as you wait in a room, watching two men argue and complain about the lack of proper windows, superficial similarities abound. But this is a temptation we should resist. The play is exciting because the characters are out of time, out of place, out of clear frames of reference and so are their audience. It is an escape from our own small worlds and an invitation into that strange collective space that you find in theatre. Any physical production would have been a change after so many virtual screenings, but this production was a truly welcome return and I heartily recommend it.