Hampstead Theatre, London – until 16 January 2021
Guest reviewer: Claire Roderick
Hampstead Theatre reopens with this rescheduled and recast production of Harold Pinter’s tense two-hander about two 1960s hitmen awaiting instructions for their next job.
James Perkins’ set captures the nondescript but intimidating nature of their temporary digs, with damp patches and peeling wallpaper. Gus (Shane Zaza) and Ben (Alec Newman) are a team, but their differences are obvious from the start in a silent passage that illustrates Gus’ nervous energy and uncertainty and Ben’s apparent calmness, although it is soon clear that he has been reading and rereading the same newspaper for quite some time. It feels a lot like an episode of Porridge written by Beckett. Alice Hamilton’s direction is assured and sensitive, never overplaying the comedy or understating the pair’s true nature.
As always with Pinter, the silences propel the narrative as much as the dialogue, and the pauses between the pair’s banalities and petty arguments become more and more tense as they realise that something odd is going on.
In a beautifully judged performance, Zaza’s Gus becomes increasingly pitiful as the doubts and guilt he feels about their last, very messy job killing a woman trickle begin to flood out of him and he looks to the older Ben for guidance and reassurance. Newman is riveting as Ben, going through his fastidious rituals and chastising Gus for his constant questions. His uneasiness becomes obvious through small clenches and freezes until the dumb waiter comes into play and he is as confused and scared as Gus. There are lovely light touches as the two bicker over tea, Eccles cakes and a defective ballcock, but the tension ramps up even as shenanigans with the dumb waiter become absurd.
After nine months, we are grateful just to sit in an auditorium, but to see a production as slick, unsettling and thrilling as The Dumb Waiter is a wonderful reminder of the power of live theatre.