This review was originally written for Cherwell
One room, two beds, two hitmen and, inexplicably, one dumb waiter – this is the seemingly impenetrable premise of Harold Pinter’s compact, one-act play, The Dumb Waiter, which is being staged at the BT Studio until Saturday of 2nd Week. The Dumb Waiter was first performed in January 1960 and, in the same way that Beckett’s Waiting For Godot did seven years earlier, it creates drama from pretty much nothing but the passive act of waiting.
Gus (Adam Leonard) and Ben (Tom Marshall) are our Vladimir and Estragon: two assassins waiting impatiently in a dilapidated flat for their orders, the latter attempting to distract himself with a paper, the former fidgeting restlessly. Their conversation meanders, occasionally tending towards something with hints of existentialism, but otherwise inanely innocuous, until the eponymous delivery device at the back of the stage suddenly begins to deliver food orders to the pair’s hesitant consternation.
The Dumb Waiter is recognisably Pinterian from the very beginning to the very end; it is packed full of tangible menace, dripping with those evocative Pinterian pauses, and underneath it all, a vague political comment shines through. Gus and Ben appear as two mice in a maze, being controlled, unwittingly, by forces beyond their comprehension. Filing the Godot role here is the pair’s mysterious employer, Wilson.
What is the significance of the dumb waiter? Who is the assassins’ target? Who is controlling their movements? And why? Above all else, this is the question the audience wants answered: why are they here, in this room, doing these things? These questions are the springboard to oblique, implicit philosophising upon the nature of authority, the limits of ability, and the state of the human condition itself. All this just broils beneath the implacable surface.
Director Tom White’s production addresses these themes in soft focus, however, seemingly more focussed on the nuanced relationship between the two hitmen than the external forces acting upon them. Leonard and Marshall are well-cast, finding a laudable realism for the most part, which renders their situation all the more absorbing. That said, their characters’ idiosyncrasies are occasionally too exaggerated and their interaction, particularly when in states of heightened emotion, a little too contrived.
White, Leonard and Marshall all deserve praise, however, for the way in which they uphold the play’s fundamental intrigue without losing the audience’s attention. Enough throwaway remarks are dropped, enough dark subjects are tentatively broached, and enough leading questions are thrown into the mix to maintain the audience’s curiosity without ever going too far and losing it entirely.
Frustratingly, but appropriately, this curiosity is never fully satisfied and the play’s surprising denouement provokes yet more questions. There is but a glimmer of realisation, quickly snuffed out by the curtain. Confusion, impatient confusion, is all that the audience is left with.