Joe Armstrong (Gus) and Clive Wood (Ben) turn in solid performances in this production of Pinter’s short black comedy, but Jamie Glover’s direction never quite achieves the lightness of touch for which it seems to be striving. The badinage between Gus and Ben, stuck in a small, windowless room, waiting for instructions from their boss about their next “job” (read: hit), doesn’t quite convey the mix of exasperation and shorthand with which the two long-term colleagues might speak. It is for this reason that not all of Ben’s sudden shifts to loud anger and violence ring true.
Wood’s Ben is best when he’s self-contained, lying on his bed reading and re-reading a newspaper, tutting and chuckling to himself. Then his quiet menace and close-to-the-surface rage are deeply effective – he makes you nervous. Armstrong’s young Gus, trying to please but very much the subordinate partner, has a nice line in inane chatter, and the interplay between the two as Ben gets more and more annoyed with him is nicely judged. Armstrong is good when Gus starts to sulk, seeking a way out of this room, half eager to get on with job, half starting to question the whole enterprise. The tension that comes from their boredom waiting is great, and it’s only as their frustrations start to boil over than this production loses a bit of its steam.
Those weighty pauses are perhaps too weighty, and even at 50 minutes it feels like a slow, considered production. Glover works hard to ramp up the tension slowly, but the climax of the play doesn’t have the impact or shock value which the beginnings of the production promised. Even if you don’t know what’s coming, it’s difficult to feel invested enough in the characters to find the ending completely satisfying. This is partly the fault of what is, on the face of it, a pretty slight play. It is deeply, blackly funny, and the way Pinter captures dialogue with all of its ticks, idioms and idiosyncrasies is pitch-perfect, but it is ultimately a very short narrative arc and the direction it’s going in is fairly predictable.
Glover, then, does not have an easy task in making us care about these two men – especially as it is swiftly revealed what the nature of their “jobs” is. They are not sympathetic characters, and in the absence of more time to get to know these two men, they do feel a little roughly-sketched. The bare room (designed by Andrew D Edwards) is unpleasantly claustrophobic, and The Print Room’s small space is used well – the audience is right there in the room with Gus and Ben, feeling the tensions rise. This helps a lot in making us care about what’s going to happen; we know something is coming, but the play’s comedy and darkness both come from not knowing quite what is coming.
The Dumb Waiter is at The Print Room until 23 November. For more information and tickets, visit The Print Room’s website.