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The Dumb Waiter

Harold Pinter
York Theatre Royal Studio
(2007)

Publicity photo

York Theatre Royal have decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pinter's The Dumb Waiter with this slick and sublime studio production which is far more menace than it is comedy, but it all works to their advantage.

In the claustrophobic atmosphere of a peeling basement room where the gas is off and the beds are both hard and temporary, two 1960s gangsters await their instructions. There are no windows and nothing to distract them from the questions which Gus has been 'meaning to ask' but Ben knows will only lead them into trouble.

This is not the usual balance of power traditionally presented between the two long-time colleagues, but it a simmering display of both men's agonizing awakening to understanding. With their last job of a hit on a woman who "didn't half spread" Gus (Eamonn Flemming) has begun to question his actions. But he has no-one else to discuss this awful realisation with except Ben.

Whilst both actors are strong and compliment each other excellently, it is Robert Pickavance as Ben who just tips the balance. Rather than solely the bullying control freak who dominates Gus, here it is himself that he is struggling to maintain and he would do anything rather than have to answer the disturbing questions.

As the rumbling and perfectly timed dumb waiter descends with increasingly perplexing orders from the deserted floors of the building above, Gus turns to Ben for answers and the panic begins to rise. The guilt is bubbling in Ben too, perhaps for some time. However he knows that he cannot lose his head in this violent business and he tears the speaking tube away from Gus when he shouts, "We've got nothing left!".

If there was one scratch on this otherwise excellent production it would be the somewhat lingering and over long moments of the ending. With the renowned 'Pinteresque' pauses being distinct elsewhere, it was a pity to stretch this chance to 'go out with a bang' as it were, just beyond its limits.

That said, this is definitely a production to see in the Pinter Season that is currently sweeping the theatres of 2007 and York Theatre Royal Studio is a great setting to see it. The small space provides an intimate viewing of these pivotal moments in the two men's relationship, and Mattie Hirst's design, from the grating creaking door down to the linoleum floor, sets it off to great effect.

In today's context the play has an interesting setting as a precursor to Reservoir Dogs and the humour comes from the odd social niceties of having a nice cup of tea and disputing the exact phrasing of the process of "lighting the kettle" - or, indeed, the non-existent gas. Eamonn Flemming brings this out in his dead-pan and innocent querying of Ben's words but it becomes enough to almost paralyse his senior partner with tension, until he winds him up enough to attempt to strangle Gus. Those in a position of power do not often like to be questioned nor do they like to be provoked to question themselves.

If, as director Damian Cruden writes in the admirable programme, the rehearsal process has been a great challenge to find the fine balance in the piece, they have certainly risen to that challenge, if not surpassed it whilst adding a real and human bond in the absurdity of a relationship based around murder.

The production runs to until the 16th June. See it before it sells out!

Reviewer: Cecily Boys