The Dumb Waiter and Other Pieces

Harold Pinter
Oxford Playhouse, and touring

Pinter remarked that the phrase ‘failure of communication’ had been consistently attached to his writing. "I believe the contrary," he said. "I believe that we communicate in our silences - in what is unsaid and that what takes place is a continual evasion; desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves." The punctuation here is mine – I don’t have access to the text itself, only Pinter’s reading of it, and punctuation is everything with Pinter. While rehearsing The Collection, Pinter handed a note to Michael Hordern which read, "Michael, I wrote dot, dot, dot, and you’re giving me dot, dot." The point is not pedantic. It is fair to describe Pinter’s writing as poetic in its rhythms, its flows and silences. The pauses, properly delivered, speak volumes.

For Pinter’s plays to work as they should, they have to be scrupulously played. Douglas Hodge, who makes his directorial debut with this smorgasbord of shorter pieces, is a seasoned player having acted in six stage Pinter productions alone, most recently in the 2000 West End production of The Caretaker starring Michael Gambon. Strange to find then that the timing, at least in the performance I saw, seemed a little off in places, the pace too forced at times.

The production is divided into two halves. The first is made up of six shorts dating variously from 1959 to 1983. They are played out on a split-level set artfully designed by Miriam Beuther, which allows the plays to played out variously on a balcony, in a cutaway office, in a dingy café, on a roof and so on. All parts are played by Toby Watkins, one half of the fantastically successful, The Play What I Wrote, and Jason Watkins, best known for his bravura performance in A Servant to Two Masters for which he was nominated for an Olivier award. Physically, the two are very different: Jones, short, fat, with a face like a soiled cherub, Watkins, thinner, taller.

In the first, The Black and White, two female derelicts attempt to keep loneliness at bay in a dingy café by engaging in desultory conversation about bread, soup, and bus routes. It is a period piece now as evinced by some of the language "Get back in your scraghole" - yet also timeless.

The second, Precisely, dating from 1983, features two suited men, Stephen and Roger, who could be MOD officials or the like, who are taking a drink on a balcony. I confess that the thrust of this piece was lost on me during the performance and only became clear in retrospect. "Twenty million. That’s what we’ve said. Time and time again. It’s a figure supported by the facts." What they are discussing is the human consequences of nuclear devastation and it reflects Pinter’s growing outspokenness about the nuclear arms race and other political issues. I’m not quite clear why this piece was chosen.

Trouble in the Works and That’s Your Trouble are both lighter, unambiguously comic pieces. Last to Go, another older piece, explores the same themes as The Black and White, while Victoria Station (1982) featuring cab driver 274 and an increasingly irascible controller is very funny and genuinely unpredictable.

The second half of the show is given over to The Dumb Waiter. Gus and Ben, two hit men, wait in a windowless, comfortless Birmingham basement for orders about their next hit. Written in 1957 the play explores a Godot-like situation but one which is also rooted in real time and space. As the critic and Pinter biographer Michael Billington observed, the dialogue is rooted (like Beckett) in music hall as well as the terse dialogue of Hemingway’s The Killers. But there is also an exploration of language, frequently comic, that is all Pinter’s own. As when Ben tells Gus to light the kettle, only for Gus to point out that it’s impossible to light the kettle; what he means is light the gas. I was surprised at how the two roles were divvied out, assuming Toby Jones would play Ben, the senior partner. Watkins lacks the necessary menace and the piece lacks focus at first, though it builds well to a satisfying climax. Pauses for thought indeed.

Reviewer: Pete Wood

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