The Dumb Waiter

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

It seems you can’t swing a Nobel Prize for Literature in the West End these days without clouting a comedian doing Pinter.

A week after Bill Bailey and his posse served up their mixed platter of Harold hors d’oeuvres in Pinter’s People, along comes cheeky Lee Evans with a more substantial dish: The Dumb Waiter, the one-act play that cemented Pinter’s status as a playwriting heavyweight half a century ago.

Evans plays Gus, the junior of two hitmen killing nothing but time in some grimy, barren basement as they await their next job. Bored, they are climbing the filthy walls, making mundane small-talk about newspaper stories or the state of the laundry. They don’t so much communicate as simply exchange words, only really expressing themselves when it comes to a petty, antsy argument over the correct turn of phrase for putting the kettle on. Even discussing the mechanics of their next murderous job, or how a woman’s body splatters differently from a man’s, is done with cold detachment.

In depicting the humdrum concerns of such grisly characters, Pinter predates Quentin Tarantino by a good four decades. Anyone who’s enjoyed the bleak gallows humour of Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs will find familiarity here. Hell, they even where the same regulation-issue black and white suits.

Their aimless chit-chat is interrupted with the clatter of a dumb waiter, which brings a series of odd requests from whatever lies above. These mysterious interruptions ratchet up the sense of things not quite being normal, even by these two chancers’ shadowy standards, an atmosphere director Harry Burton skilfully maintains throughout.

Evans has already proved himself worthy of the West End boards in Beckett’s Endgame and The Producers. His role here isn’t all that far removed from his stage persona, but with the manic energy turned right down. He’s a slightly dense, fretful East End Herbert (he’s dumb and he’s waiting, do you see?) and awkwardly maladroit. The play starts with a slick bit of physical comedy as he grapples with his shoelaces, the first of several demonstrations of his prowess in that department.

For the most part, however, this is not played for laughs, and Evans shows admirable restraint. Without being too obvious, the play is blackly funny, with such apparently innocuous lines as ‘it didn’t occur to me’ proving hysterical in context, and with the right, underplayed, emphasis that both actors provide

Opposite Evans, Jason Isaacs - Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter films – provides the perfect, well, straightman, almost. His Ben is just as uneducated and working-class as Gus, but with a slight seniority of years that he can exercise over his more naïve sidekick, to make him feel more superior.

The Dumb Waiter is only a brisk hour long, but it manages to be tense, claustrophobic, funny and surreal – often all in the same blank exchange between the two.

If you only see one comedian-led Pinter production in the West End this month, it should probably be this one.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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Review of Pinter's People

Review date: 8 Feb 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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