by Harold Pinter
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Designed by Soutra Gilmour
Trafalgar Studios, London
Friday 11th December 2015, 7.30 pm
Keith Allen as Sam, Max’s brother, age 63
Gemma Chan as Ruth, Teddy’s wife
Ron Cook as Max, father
Gary Kemp as Teddy, Ph.D, works in America
John Macmillan as Joey, boxer
John Simm as Lenny, pimp
The 50th Anniversary? Phew! John Simm from Life on Mars, Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet and Ron Cook who we saw as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night and Polonius in Hamlet in Michael Grandage’s first Donmar Warehouse season (which predates this blog, unfortunately). It’s the third time we’ve seen John Simm, the first was in Simon Brett’s Elling then Pinter’s The Hothouse, both at the Trafalgar Studio.
In 1965, the play was commissioned by the RSC, and it was Pinter’s first full-length play since The Caretaker, and hailed as a masterpiece, and is still considered such. It features in Michael Billington’s 101 Greatest Plays of All Time. This 50th Anniversary production is getting all the accolades too.
Lenny (John Simm) at the start
Briefly, there is a family of unpleasant Londoners, with Max as the domineering dad. The three sons are Lenny, a full-time pimp, Joey, a would-be boxer and Teddy who is a university professor in America. Sam, Max’s brother, is a slightly effete chauffeur who drives a Humber Super Snipe. I only mention that detail because I once proudly owned an earlier model. Teddy comes back from America with his wife of six years, Ruth. They have three kids in America, and have had no contact with the family in six years. They arrive in the middle of the night in this all-male household – I’ve never had a whore here before. Ever since your mother died, Max tells him. Max also mentions smelly scrubber, stinking pox-ridden slut, filthy scrubber, slop bucket, bedpan, and that disease to refer to Ruth. A serious fear of the female?
I don’t think even Pinter would have objected to me saying it is, at heart, an uncomfortable, disturbing, frankly nasty play about a family of spectacularly misogynist men. That doesn’t detract from its power. But we have intimations of child abuse (while tucking the boys in at bedtime), extreme violence towards women (Lenny’s story about the whore and the other about the mangle … that one definitely went on to Monty Python), the abuse of Ruth, the plan to turn her into a prostitute for the financial benefit of the family, the suggestion they pass her around including to Dad.
Max (Ron Cook)
The trouble for us is that the play has been subverted by its success and influence. There are lines in it that predate Monty Python, in the deliberately inflated language in a Cockney accent given to Lenny. It reminds me of the Python East End gangster sitting in the “conversation pit” nailing people’s heads to the coffee table. I also wonder if the line I’ve got the scars originated with Max in The Homecoming? Probably, but it didn’t stop there. Of course Pinter was a master at piling cliché on cliché, repetition on repetition. When we don’t have the convoluted inflated speech, it almost reads like ELT in places. There are short sentences. They’re straightforward. They are clear … I’m doing it now.
Sam (Keith Allen)
There is a direct line from Galton and Simpson’s Albert Steptoe (1962) to Max. Johnny Speight’s Alf Garnett first appeared in June 1965, and given the lead time for a TV series, is a parallel creation, not a derivative one. Warren Mitchell (Alf Garnett) has played the role of Max too. Am I saying Galton and Simpson and Johnny Speight are Pinter’s equals as writers? Certainly, not that there was ever a Nobel Prize awarded for TV sitcoms. In their ability to reach far more people, definitely. I think the influences this play had on writing for stage and small screen in the 60s and 70s make it sound dated. Part of its 1965 origin is the use of minced oaths: “Pop off!” and “Flake off!” instead of what he meant. Surprisingly for the time, I thought.
Lenny (John Simm)
Pinter was hailed for the authenticity of his dialogue, demonstrating the inability to communicate rather than using language to communicate. I used to love it. As someone who has spent decades writing dialogue, I used to examine Pinter in print with admiration. However, I’m reminded now in 2015 of the old theatricals who complained in the 60s that “one” did not go to the thee-aytar to hear people being inarticulate. I guess that TV soaps have long ago eradicated the novelty of East End lowlife being foul to each other.
Lenny with Ruth (Gemma Chan)
Ron Cook plays the ex-butcher head of family, a role he was made for. He bristles with aggression. He dominates conversation (if we can call it conversation, perhaps “dialogue” is better) like a steamroller. He bullies and threatens. He punches Joey. John Simm’s Lenny is the cold contrast. Slim, neat, never breaking a sweat. Cruel, controlling. Always threatening. While poor Joey, the boxer, so ostensibly the toughest, is just the baby of the family – though the tale of his forceful refusal to use contraception with girls Lenny picked up shows him as a thug too. Keith Allen, as Chauffeur Sam, is the only vaguely likeable one. Proud of his grey-capped limousine driver duties, limp-wristed, fielding questions as to why at 63 he remains unmarried. Gemma Craven as Ruth, is strikingly beautiful, and really has to throw everything into her looks and reactions between everyone’s lines. She is enigmatic, teasing. But as Lenny should have realized in the glass of water scene (he wants to take her glass before she has finished), immune to manipulation or power plays.
Teddy (Gary Kemp) watched by Lenny
Pinter had obviously been around enough philosophy graduates and professors in the 60s to nail Teddy. And Gary Kemp captures Teddy to perfection: the fixed “please don’t hit me smile”, the inability to offer an opinion of any kind when Lenny engages him in a forced quasi-philosophical discussion. The inability to act while his wife rolls around on the carpet with his brother. Teddy is the ineffective man and Pinter’s target in the work, I think. His wife Ruth is in crisis, she can’t bear their lives anymore. In the end, she goes along with the rough, crude, extremely mysoginist family instead of him, seeming to accept her role as a high class prostitute, though we gather that in fact she will be controlling them, not vice versa. We also learn that she had a career modelling at “country house parties” before she met Teddy. High class prostitutes featured strongly in the post-Profumo collective of 1965. Though Lenny’s talk of the flats he owns around Greek Street made me think of how Soho has changed. You can take a diagonal route across it now and see barely any sign of sleaze.
Ruth (front), Max (centre), Teddy (rear)
Jamie Lloyd has broken the play up with dynamic lighting changes and sudden bursts of music. It dilutes the relentless build up of Pinter we know from that era, and I think that’s a positive thing. The Pinteresque pauses are meant to be long, but the staccato effect of them doesn’t seem as brilliantly original as it used to.
I liked the minimalist set, and the lighting plot. The set has a thin red metal frame and recedes to a door suspended in dusky space with stairs up and down. An an armchair. With the use of red lights in the many musical breaks, it was underground in two senses of the word: gangsters and hell. I greatly admired the closing shrinking pin spot on Gemma Chan’s face. I had to do a similar lighting move twice nightly for weeks and with an old fashioned limelight it was very hard to do smoothly, (especially finding the start point) though I’d guess the technology has improved and it’s programmed.
The acting has been praised to the skies. John Simm, Gemma Chan and Gary Kemp excelled in reactive work throughout. Everyone was brilliant, as the poster outside the theatre cleverly shows with a quote about each actor. Ten four star reviews too.
Lenny and Ruth dancing. Teddy watching
So, while I’m usually more generous than the professional reviewers, I’ll make a change from the many five star and four star ratings. I don’t think the “masterpiece” by the Nobel prize winner for literature has held up for its 50th anniversary in spite of a great production. It’s Pinter’s intrinsic play, not the fine production, that for me ends up with three stars. I can see why it seemed so great in 1965. However, if you look at some of the most popular plays in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, they are not necessarily the ones we rate today. Other media have taken away The Homecoming‘s originality and edge, leaving just the nasty taste of watching unlikeable men. If you want hints of child abuse, revelations about a partner’s adultery, violence towards women, verbal violence and cruelty and fistfights, sex with a brother’s wife or sister’s husband, it’ll all be in the next Christmas Day episode of East Enders.
There was great mod music before the play started and in the interval. Can I repeat my “What? No recorded music credits?” protest. If you can credit every person peripherally involved in a production, how can you ignore significant mood-creating music? Shameful lack of credit.
Bottled water at The National Theatre is £1.oo. Can the Trafalgar Studio justify £2.50 for the smallest possible unlabelled bottle? The National are making at least 85p profit and selling lots. The Trafalgar Studio are just pissing people off and not selling any. They said there was free water at the bar. But there wasn’t.
I’ll excuse the extra 50p on the programme price as a natural levy of commercial theatre v subsidized theatre. It wasn’t at RSC / Globe standard either.
The toilets are West End Standard Awful. The men’s are narrow. Try standing at a urinal while someone with a large backpack tries to push past to the next one. What is it with large backpacks and London? Are they all cyclists carrying changes of clothing? None of them seem to have any awareness of the extra 12 to 18 inches sticking out behind them. I had my glasses knocked off by one turning round in a shop last week. Three people got smacked round the head by just one leaving a coffee shop today.
The Hot House, Trafalgar Studio
The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios
The Hot House, Trafalgar Studios
Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios
The Duchess of Malfi, Old Vic
The School for Scandal, Theatre Royal, Bath
The Hot House, Trafalgar Studios