I think it’s fair to say that 2020 has been mostly horrendous, especially for theatre. But finally, a glimmer of hope can be seen as theatres are allowed to reopen. Granted they’re playing to audiences a quarter of the size due to coronavirus restrictions, but they’re playing nonetheless. The opening night of The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre is a night of stifled, restricted excitement. Incredibly, The Dumb Waiter originally premiered at Hampstead Theatre in 1960, and the buzz in the foyer is still detectable as we, standing two metres apart, queue to take our seats.
I can’t think of a better way to ease ourselves back in to the world of theatre than with a one-act Pinter piece. Written in 1957, it’s the story of Gus (Shane Zaza) and Ben (Alec Newman), two hitmen awaiting further instructions regarding an impending job. They sit on their beds either side of the stage, waiting to hear from the powers that be. James Perkins has designed a subconsciously foreboding set, with both men rooms featuring grubby, browning, peeling wallpaper and a concerningly efficient drainage system.
Gus worries and complains, Ben repeatedly tells him to shut up, and this goes on for the first half an hour of the piece until the dreaded dumb waiter comes flying down like a guillotine, where mysterious food orders and mounting tensions build to an unsettling finish. Zaza is boyish and skittish as the very concerned Gus, while Newman is decidedly cool-headed as Ben, the consistently professional leader of the pair. This characterisation isn’t the most riveting I’ve seen, Jamie Lloyd’s production as part of the Pinter at the Pinter season last year saw Martin Freeman’s Gus far more controlled and calmer than Zaza’s, and Danny Dyer’s Ben visibly on edge, resulting in a more dangerous feeling tension, and more impactful closing scene.
However, I imagine that this production directed by Alice Hamilton might ring truer to Pinter’s original intentions with the play. This version of The Dumb Waiter is an eerie, sharp and unsettling 55 minutes. With stellar performances from both cast members, an evocative set and clear direction, it’s a near-perfect return to the (albeit socially distanced) world of theatre. We’re not quite back to normal, but performances like this one make it seem as though we’re well on our way to it.
The Dumb Waiter is playing at the Hampstead Theatre until 16 January. For more information and tickets, visit the Hampstead Theatre website.