FringeReview UK 2017
The New Venture Theatre in its Theatre Upstairs space proves the perfect ground for Steven O’Shea direction of Pinter’s 1965 masterpiece, designed in a strongly naturalist set by George Walter and Simon Glazier, lit by Strat Mastoris with some intriguing effects; and sound by Tim Metcalfe featuring Satie. Till January 28th.
Steven O’Shea brings Pinter’s 1965 masterpiece to New Venture Theatre in its Theatre Upstairs space, designed in a strongly naturalist set by George Walter and Simon Glazier, lit by Strat Mastoris with some intriguing effects; and sound by Tim Metcalfe involving Satie’s obliquely lyrical Gnossienne No. 3 with its nagging arabesques.
Mid-period Pinter’s almost superseding the early ground-breaking works in popularity, and for good reason. Along with the later Old Times and No Man’s Land, The Homecoming’s recently been revived and re-appraised, in this case a year ago at the Trafalgar Studios in the West End.
What O’Shea’s production foregrounds is the not-always contained violence the family visit on each other. It’s the home to which respectable Stateside philosophy academic and eldest son Teddy brings Ruth, his wife of six years, for the first time: to a real fire, a North London family of butchering crooks, always in search of new meat deals.
Max, the arthritic paterfamilias still capable of rabbit-punches, Lenny the articulate menacing second son, and Joey far younger, the almost inarticulate boxer whose ring-technique might only just be ahead of his groping for words. Chris Knight makes a fine fist of a haplessly-fated boxer, whose slurred speech brilliantly suggests someone punchy even before their injuries. And it’s words that, more than punches, crush and humiliate in this family.
Max’s brother Sam’s a chauffeur, a respectable living constantly derided by Max. However despite his touching if overly-defended pride in customer satisfaction John Tolputt’s Sam brings nobility, decency and at the end omniscience: his explosive revelation suggesting that gentleness isn’t weakness, and when pushed can prove deadly, though at enormous personal expense. In each assertion lies a consequence. Words are marshalled as weapons: a primal male pecking order about to undergo a revolution.
Culann Smyth teeters on his cane in a towering hunch of a performance as Max, the switch-back bully who praises then turns on everyone, even Ruth, as he hones his pathic unpredictability as a would-be terror. In the first scene it’s seen to glance off the shrewd and dangerous Lenny, and later Ruth knows just what to do with it. How these three characters attempt to exert dominance over each other and more successfully over the others, makes up the enthralling writhe of power-lines short-circuiting each other.
But it’s the apparently impassive outsider Ruth who flips over the command structure. First she challenges Lenny who tries to bully her into surrendering her glass of water. ‘If you take it from me I’ll take you.’ Even Lenny can’t counter this explicit sexual challenge, where Ruth simply mirrors back the dominant language with its eroticised double. Scott Roberts registers the truculence and lightly etches the narrations of his violent assault on women – in his first encounter with Ruth. Roberts importantly contains the bully simmering under the lightly-worn existentialist erudition.
That’s where James Macauley’s neatly muted Teddy is twice defeated in two pincer movements, superbly improbable as they are: Lenny’s ‘being and nothingness’ Sartrean jibes and finally ’Do you detect a certain logical incoherence in the central affirmations of Christian theism?’ boxing him into a continual ‘that’s doesn’t fall within my province’ defence. Ruth undercuts them all with her pincers. ‘Look at me. I … move my leg. That’s all it is. But I wear.. underwear… captures your attention.’ She scores over everyone and perhaps in that moment her own next moves become clear to herself.
Chicago-born Bridgett Ana Lawrence’s sashay between impassivity and smiling cat-with-cream scorn inverts the British woman Americanised, and flips over too the exoticism of her persona, just as the play does, by flattening her accent save at key drawled-out moments. She’s slinkily effective in the sudden literal tumbles that follow these verbal flirtations.
The denouement, where the men – even Teddy defeated and falling in with events – attempt to carve up the fact of Ruth is again subverted where to be the sole woman confers power.
If the dominant trio are allowed their shining, it’s also Smyth’s interaction with Tolputt that fascinates; and Smyth’s terrors jump out with reality. Lawrence brings a new dimension to Ruth, an overtly feline reading; as does Roberts’ superbly chipper over-compensation, dancing with the physically towering Lawrence. Macauley’s long deflation and Knight’s verbally challenged jabber are ungrateful roles unforgettably transfigured. O’Shea has paced this with a tread that we follow down to the last triangle of light on Ruth’s face. A superb revival.