Harold Pinter

The Dumb Waiter

07/07/21

Old Vic: In Camera

Some questions are no-brainers. Would I like to see The Old Vic’s production of The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter? Well, as I consider it to be among the finest one-act plays in history, the answer to that is a resounding yes.

Am I able to be part of the socially-distanced audience for one of its live performances? Well, no, that’s awkward. It’s a long way from Edinburgh to London – but luckily, for a small fee, I can choose to watch it online as it is transmitted live, so it’ll be the next best thing to actually being there.

And who are the chosen performers for this production? David Thewlis as Ben and Daniel Mays as Gus. When I think about it, I can’t come up with two more appropriate actors for those roles. Thewlis promises to be a perfect fit for the snappy, irritable Ben, while Mays, with his perpetual hangdog look, is just right for his hapless subordinate, Gus.

The tickets are duly booked and a reminder is popped into the diary. All good.

The Dumb Waiter first arrived on the London stage in 1960 and, in many ways, it’s the play that first cemented Harold Pinter’s reputation. It’s the tale of two hit-men, sequestered in a grubby room, waiting to kill whoever walks through the doorway. The room is pretty featureless apart from the titular dumb waiter, and the men’s rambling conversation is punctuated by a series of seemingly meaningless instructions that are delivered within it.

Of course this antiquated piece of machinery is a metaphor for something – and the beauty of the play is that a viewer’s interpretation of what it might actually represent can be wide-ranging and inventive. Across the years, I’ve seen this performed in various venues and, back in the dim and distant past, have even been part of a youth theatre production of it. The play has been a huge influence on so many other productions – Martin McDonagh’s wonderful film In Bruges, for instance, clearly owes it a considerable debt.

So, the play begins at the appointed time, and yes, Thewlis and Mays are every bit as good as anticipated. Perhaps it doesn’t help that I know the script so well I could probably be working as a prompt – so there was never any chance of surprising me here, since director Jeremy Herrin has opted to play it straight, sticking to the original staging. What’s missing, of course, is the subtle electricity that’s generated by being present at the actual event, the indefinable frisson of watching the play unfold right in front of my gaze without the inevitable distancing that ensues whenever a play is turned into a movie.

In short, I’m still longing to return to the theatre for real. Until that time, The Dumb Waiter is a fine way to pass an hour and I urge you to watch it while you still have the chance. You’ll find the link here: https://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2021/live-stream-from-home/old-vic-in-camera-the-dumb-waiter

4 stars

Philip Caveney