The Dumb Waiter – Lyric Theatre – Review by Cathy Brown
Written by Harold Pinter
Produced by Thomas Finnegan, Chris McCurry and Colm G. Doran
Dates – 16 – 18 Nov
60 years ago when The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter was first produced, there was no fake news and no social media. But to enter its mysterious world today is to be reminded that control is an illusion and that unseen forces are pulling the strings, leaving notions of personal agency sadly lacking.
The Dumb Waiter opens with two armed men sitting in a shabby basement room, waiting. Ben, the cooler of the two, reads the newspaper while Gus, fidgets and worries. These men have been in this situation before – other basement rooms, other jobs – but always waiting for instructions from the unseen Godot-like Wilson. But things didn’t go well on the last job. It was messy. And now there is no gas to make a cup of tea and the sheets aren’t clean. Something about the job this time is definitely wrong.
A third character, the eponymous dumb waiter, roars into life, inexplicably sending down food orders for scampi, beansprouts and macaroni, when the best the men can do are some moldy biscuits and an Eccles cake. An envelope slides under the door, containing twelve matchsticks. The men are being played with, but by whom and to what end?
Thomas Finnegan is a youthful and vulnerable Gus, his initial concerns about the deficiencies in the housekeeping giving way to genuine concern about the moral implications of his line of work. Chris McCurry perfectly captures the stillness and stoicism of Ben, the senior partner in this outfit, but the flashes of anger and violence, when they come, lack the necessary edge and menace to underpin the unpredictable danger of a Pinter world.
Both actors handle the comedy and banter well, and despite the lack of tension, both beautifully capture the emptiness at the heart of their characters, bringing a sense of doomed inevitability to the action. In this absurd scenario, their time-killing small talk transforms into something altogether more sinister. The newspaper festooned set echoes the surreal air, and is augmented by the screeching sound of the dumb waiter which shatters those Pinter-esque silences.
This production is one that intrigues rather than disturbs. Director Seon Simpson doesn’t always grasp the play’s tricky changes of pace and mood and the early scenes are strangely static. As the men become more fraught, the production picks up pace, injecting that necessary sense of fear, but the questionable staging of the final scene means that the denouement lacks sharpness and shock.
Pinter’s familiar concerns are all here: claustrophobia, power-plays and seemingly banal dialogue, with tension broken by absurdist wit, however the political undertones aren’t fully teased out. Ben and Gus are effectively presented as reliable pawns, blindly following any instructions sent from above, questioning their situation, but ultimately unable to take a stand.
The strength of this production lies in the performances of the two leads, who embrace the stillness and anxiety of their characters to great effect.
Thomas Finnegan – Gus
Chris McCurry – Ben
Seon Simpson – Director
Moya Doogan – Designer