It’s hard to be a hitman. The hours are unpredictable, the people are seedy, and sometimes you can’t even get a decent cup of tea.
In Harold Pinter’s 1960 play The Dumb Waiter, which opened at the Michael Pilch Studio in Week 6 of Hilary term, we see just how poorly our criminal brethren are treated on the job. Disgusting basement? Check. No gas for the kettle? Check. Cryptic instructions from a mysteriously absent boss? Double check. The lack of workplace protection laws is appalling.
The new production, directed by Alex Foster and Alex Hopkins-McQuillan, runs for a tense 50 minutes. Two hitmen, Ben (Noah Radcliffe-Adams) and Gus (Henry Calcutt) lounge on beds in a basement in Birmingham, waiting for their victim to arrive. Each has a revolver under his pillow. They are restless. Ben tries to ignore Gus’s steady stream of jabber, which ranges through everything from football to dishware. But the two men aren’t alone for long. They begin to receive strange messages through the basement dumbwaiter – scraps of paper demanding, oddly enough, Greek food. And steak and chips, and tea, and scampi, which, of course, Ben and Gus haven’t got. As the two men try to make sense of their situation, and claustrophobia sets in, it seems less and less likely that Ben and Gus will ever slay their victim. They might just murder each other first.
This is a black-box production, with audience members seated on three sides. The set is sparse, with only a couple of beds, a chair, and the omnipresent dumbwaiter, looming at the back of the basement like a vulture. Meanwhile, as the show proceeds, Ben and Gus litter the set with all sorts of detritus. It’s fun to watch (in the way that chaos is always fun to watch): food wrappers and cigarette boxes, newspaper pages, and Eccles-cake crumbs are scattered like confetti. It’s an effective stage image. The set gets messy as Ben and Gus get antsy.
This is my first time witnessing the directorial duo of Foster and Hopkins-McQuillan, having missed out on Quartet last term. Their style in The Dumb Waiter is by turns understated and overwhelming. If you’ve ever seen one cat grooming another, then inexplicably baring his teeth and trying to rip his buddy’s ear off, you have a good idea of how quickly the emotional stakes change in this play. Sometimes Ben and Gus glare at each other wordlessly for minutes. Moments later, they’re shouting, and nearby audience members seem in danger of catching a fist to the face. The rapid back-and-forth between these extremes is exhausting; yet it’s also magnetic, tracing Pinter’s script in all its weirdness.
And this is a difficult script to work with. Pinter is a master of dialect, drawing attention to the linguistic quirks of each character – Ben and Gus have a heated debate about whether one “lights the kettle” or “puts on the kettle” – but it’s never easy for an actor to adopt a language he’s unfamiliar with. It’s all the more impressive, then, that these actors never skip a beat. Radcliffe-Adams as Ben is vaguely cockney, hunching over his newspaper and exclaiming “cor!” at intervals. He’s a master of body language; even as he quietly lurches around the stage, the tension in his shoulders speaks to Ben’s muted anxieties. Meanwhile, Calcutt as Gus is all fluttery hands and nervous laughs, a very unlikely hitman. He’s effete, but Calcutt doesn’t make him a caricature; instead, we witness the very real moral qualms of a brutal killer who doesn’t see himself as, well, a brutal killer.
The Dumb Waiter is a wild ride. From a script that is basically Waiting for Godot meets The Odd Couple, this team has sculpted a tight production that will leave you thinking, even as you flee the small theatre with something like relief. You get to leave the cramped basement room, but Ben and Gus? They don’t have the option. It makes you wonder if – were you held in a musty basement, fed impossible instructions, and forced to wait, and wait, and wait – you’d start acting dumb too. And dumb, as we learn, can be dangerous.