The Dumb Waiter

Harold Pinter
The Print Room

Clive Wood as Ben and Joe Armstrong as Gus in The Dumb Waiter Credit: Nobby Clark

The raw and intimate performance space of The Print Room, a converted 1950s warehouse complete with gritty walls and rough flooring, makes the perfect setting for the dingy and claustrophobic atmosphere that is key to Pinter’s sinister yet hilarious two-hander The Dumb Waiter.

The production starts with a blackout. Clanking sound effects rattle around the auditorium. Pause. The lights are up and the scene is suddenly set: Gus (Joe Armstrong) and Ben (Clive Wood) sit on their respective soiled beds in a dark, windowless basement. Gus ties up his shoelace. They wait.

It transpires that Gus and Ben are both hitmen anticipating their next job. Reminiscent of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, they wait upon instructions from a Godot-like employer named Wilson. Gus is clearly the junior member of the two; constantly asking questions while Ben sits in bed, casually commenting on the latest newspaper headlines.

The plot is sparse, but director Jamie Glover teases out the subtle dynamics of power at the heart of this modern classic with sophistication and aplomb. Gus’s young and wide-eyed inquisitiveness is perfectly counterpointed against Ben’s cold, acerbic nature, and even the slightest raise of the eyebrow or dramatic pause from Armstrong or Wood are painfully pregnant and speak volumes.

Gus and Ben’s conversations span from crockery and dead cats to the latest football match, but the nature of Pinter’s language turns these mundane exchanges into darkly comic poetry that drips with suspense. Their absurd argument about the semantics of “light the kettle” and “put on the kettle” is particularly entertaining and has the audience in peals of laughter.

However, hilarity is soon overshadowed by threat. A series of increasingly bizarre orders is sent down from the dumb waiter, from British “steak and chips” to the Greek dish “Ormitha Macarounada”. Anxiety and confusion ensue as Gus and Ben attempt to gratify these mysterious requests with their equally bizarre collection of stale rations.

With each order, the tension builds. Ben becomes increasingly aggressive and Wood’s outbursts of anger are absolutely riveting to watch. The atmosphere of menace becomes almost palpable as the play escalates into a startling dénouement that is both chilling and intense.

Pinter commented in a 1988 interview that his earlier plays are much more political than they seem on the surface. He described The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter and The Hothouse as “metaphors, really… They’re much closer to an extremely critical look at authoritarian postures—state power, family power, religious power, power used to undermine, if not destroy, the individual, or the questioning voice”.

Indeed, oblique political undertones lurk in the corners of The Dumb Waiter. Pinter taps into our incessant desire for communication and meaning-making, but Ben and Gus are ultimately presented as pawns, manipulated by an unknown authority and blindly following instructions as idly as the eponymous dumb waiter.

Reviewer: Rhiannon Kelly