What is it about cricket that so fascinates many of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century? Stoppard, Ayckbourn, Rattigan, Harwood, Hare and Gray all demonstrated their fondness for the game. Perhaps more than any other sport which tends by nature to be frenetic, there’s an almost leisurely and considered unfolding narrative punctuated by moments of high drama which would appeal to a writer’s sense of drama.
Two others which fell under the game’s siren spell were Samuel Beckett (who actually has an entry in Wisden) and Harold Pinter who didn’t mince his words claiming that: “Cricket is the greatest thing that God created on earth – certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either.” And it’s an imagined encounter between these two playwrights in an early 1960s pavilion in the Cotswolds that forms the backbone to Stumped. From theatre/film hybrid pioneers Original Theatre Company this is a deliberately pleasingly punningly titled short play by Shomit Dutta – himself another aficionado. It was filmed at the home of English cricket – the Lords ground – and was originally meant to be live streamed on 10 September; national events, of course, intervened. It became available on demand on 27 September.
Fittingly the piece begins with an extended pause, a famed theatrical conceit of both writers. It then proceeds with huge debts to the works of the pair, in particular The Dumb Waiter and Waiting For Godot. Both these plays focus on a pair of protagonists patiently waiting for something to happen and a high level of expectancy over the part each one is going to play in proceedings – rather like cricket itself. The arcane laws and rituals governing the sport are also redolent of the writer’s characters and indeed the philosophy of the two men themselves.
Beckett ritualistically keeps the score while his younger contemporary Pinter nurses an injury with a bag of frozen peas (or as he pedantically reminds his companion, petit pois). They also chat about their latest projects – Beckett’s film, called not untypically Film, and Pinter’s as yet unnamed play which will become The Homecoming. Above all, they fire goading ideas at each other and test each other’s patience as they await their turn to bat.
In the second half we discover how their innings panned out and why Beckett has developed an injury to the head. It partly revolves around the (mis)use of the cricketing cry “Wait” as the players prevaricate in the moment about going for runs. This time the pair find themselves at night on the village green somewhat fruitlessly anticipating their futures again as they wait for a lift from a mysterious teammate who may or may not have a grudge to bear.
I enjoyed the measured performances of Stephen Tompkinson as Beckett and Andrew Lancel as Pinter. They do not so much inhabit their subjects as give us an impression of these literary figures at the height of their powers. Tompkinson particularly has some fun with an inebriated Beckett in the second half and delivers many classy lines in a mournfully rueful and self-deprecatory manner which by all accounts captures the writer’s demeanour. Lancel gives us a sense of what Pinter referred to as “the hidden violence of cricket” as he attempts to make sense of his experience both on and off the field of play.
David Woodhead’s slightly surreal set seems to reference Endgame – another play which focuses on two men trapped in a state of bleak existence. With that in mind I don’t think Dutta’s script quite worked in part two once the pair had been allowed to break away to a world outside and there was at least a notion that they might escape their fate. Had they been paying close attention to their own plays, of course, then they would have known that such an eventuality was highly improbable – especially as the man for whom they are waiting rejoices in the nickname of Doggo.