Jamie Lloyd brings us the fiftieth anniversary of (the god that is) Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming – a play that in 1965 was slap bang in the middle of people’s hunger for howling, transgressive art of all forms. But a fifty year time period can have a habit of ageing the dangerous, the daring and the damn right shocking. Lucky for us, this is Pinter; and, as if Pinter needed any back-up, this production is driven by Jamie Lloyd and his ship is steered by John Simm, Keith Allen and Ron Cook, with a side order of Gary Kemp (whom my mum was rather excited about) and Gemma Chan: cast as if to prove the theory that too many stars can obscure a view of the sky.
It’s a bombardment of talent, making their interpretation all the more complex to try to balance. In my mind, Pinter is all about balance. Generally, his plot and characters are forceful yet delicate; violent yet intricately and psychologically damaged. This all-star cast have to be screaming on the inside, while externally upholding complete control in the darkest of ways. Jamie Lloyd’s job is to show, while Pinter uninterruptedly tells. It is a visual production in which, through perspective and design, the audience is drawn in claustrophobically to a family who live on the underbelly of society, in the beating heart of the city. Pinter’s dialogue is sharp and pace-driven: it is intended to be delivered like pellets, leaving no time for confusion to stir within the audience – just simple, unadulterated shock and acceptance.
Lloyd breaks the pace with isolation: isolated light bulbs dimly illuminate isolated characters as their inner turmoil, grief and struggle are given an outlet. Lenny (John Simm) crunches a clock between his fingers, while Teddy (Gary Kemp) attempts to swallow his fist to stifle his inner groans. For these moments of isolated to pain to work, they need to follow the rhythm, to become a part of the breathing motion of the play itself – and they absolutely do. Saying that, the performances have to match that marker and preserve that rhythm for it to be maintained as a sinister picture of reality.
In this, Simm’s Lenny is completely flawless. Every inch of his characterisation – from the daggered nonchalance of his speech pattern, to the inherent evil in his smile – is on point. Similarly, Ron Cook’s Max (butcher turned psychologically, physically and sexually abusive father figure) is as understated as it is mesmerisingly terrifying. Allen’s Sam is camp and cautious in equal measure and holds his role in perfect balance to his counterparts. But it is Teddy (Kemp) and Ruth (Chan) who have come “home”. It is their journey: funny, then, that they should disrupt the pace so catastrophically. I refer to Chan specifically, because it is Ruth’s introduction to an all-male, power-fuelled, unruled home that catalyses change in every character. In a warped kind of feminism, we see her character actively choose to stay with her primal in-laws to take a job “on the game”, rather than return to her suburban home to be the pristine wife and perfect mother. She decides this entirely on her own terms and holds the male characters, squirming, in the palm of her hand. Ruth is pivotal but Chan is not: she is stunted and mechanical, doing absolutely what she is told to but without anything more. Chan breaks up sentences in a way I have never encountered before, which makes quite the pig’s ear out of the all important pace and rhythm of the narrative. Let’s just say I can see why she was so well cast as a robot in Humans. What she does bring to her ex-model character is undeniable beauty, but sometimes that just isn’t enough.
The Homecoming is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 4 February. For more information and tickets, see the ATG tickets website.