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BWW Review: THE DUMB WAITER, Old Vic: In Camera

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Livestreaming through July 10th

BWW Review: THE DUMB WAITER, Old Vic: In Camera BWW Review: THE DUMB WAITER, Old Vic: In Camera Harold Pinter's 1960 two-hander seems to be near-ubiquitous of late, having been revived on the West End early in 2019 as part of an all-Pinter season and then again separately late last year at the Hampstead, in a run that was truncated by the pandemic. But neither of those outings, often adroit though they were, felt as complete as the current, too-brief sighting of this ever-intriguing text, which continues the Old Vic's invaluable In Camera series, this time performing before at least a limited audience in the theatre as opposed to no audience at all.

Might the venerable playhouse bring this back for a proper run in due course? That seems only fair, given the limited exposure available to two near-definitive Pinter performances from David Thewlis and Daniel Mays, under the watchful eye of the busy Jeremy Herrin. (The same director has come to this fresh from reopening The National Theatre last month with After Life.) More wounding than Pinter's Beckett-steeped text can often seem, Herrin and co. find the baleful comedy in the piece alongside something far darker and more mournful, which is there in Thewlis's ever-anxious gaze and in the mounting desperation of Mays, who is seen to be less waiting for Godot than for some sort of meaning to the random malevolence of his existence.

That brutality is there from the outside in the recitation from the newspaper of various atrocities, as recounted by Ben (Thewlis) to his sidekick Gus (Mays), the two immured in a cell-like room that could well house Hamm and Clov from Endgame. It's not long into the 55-minute play before we discover that Ben and Gus are hitmen who presumably know a thing or two about brutality firsthand and exist in thrall to the unseen figure of Wilson even as they respond to the various requests for food that keep being delivered via the dumb waiter of the title.

The patter between the characters delights as ever: the semantic difference between "light[ing]" the kettle, for instance or "put[ting] on" the kettle.The roll call of foodstuffs constitutes a set piece all its own, whether that be Eccles cake or milk (both of which have apparently seen better days) or a penchant for the sort of Chinese food surely less common sixty years ago than it would be now.

But what emerges strongly this time round are the heightened stakes for both men. Mays's panicky, boyish-seeming Gus keeps moving towards Ben's bed as if in search of (paternal?) comfort and as often as not sits crouched, ready for action as and when the command comes. (The actor, back onstage for the first time in five years, was a brilliant Aston in The Caretaker at this same address in 2016.) Thewlis, himself far too infrequently seen in the theatre, projects far greater resolve as Ben, even as one is aware of his comparatively stiff-backed demeanour being pushed towards the brink, Ben seen near the end once again flipping through the same newspaper as if on eerie autopilot.

Like so much Pinter, the play works both as a feral study in power dynamics and as a comedy of menace, its vaudevillian aspects this time out always shaded with the forbidding grey of Hyemi Shin's high-walled design. The timing couldn't be better than our present moment to hear Gus described as an "ardent" follower of the footie who is allowed by Herrin's roving camera to be briefly glimpsed offstage and also peering into the shaft of the dumb waiter, as if seeking eludication wherever he can. What remains timeless, though, is the play's forensic investigation of those unnamable terrors that exist just out of reach, to which Pinter gave career-long voice even as his characters struggle to articulate dangers that The Dumb Waiter itself understands all too well.

The Dumb Waiter livestreams through July 10 at the Old Vic

Photo c. Manuel Harlan


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