Despite having studied English Literature at university, I have never read a Pinter play. Nor have I, before last night at least, seen one performed: shameful I know, but there it is. So it was to my great delight and educational advancement that I was invited to attend The Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter’s new production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter.
As I stepped from the bar into the play-room, the shift in atmosphere was absolute and I entered into the world of the protagonists. It’s a hugely characterful, very intimate space which the Bike Shed boasts and it is perfectly suited to claustrophobic plays such as this one. As I took my seat and surveyed my surroundings it was impossible to tell where the room’s natural features ended and the props and stage design began.
The two actors were on stage from the start as the audience filed in. Benjamin Warren, playing Ben, lay on his bed, flicking through a tabloid newspaper, while Tom Hackney, playing Gus, paced and fidgeted nervously. As the action of the play then commenced, this essential distinction between the two characters and their personalities exploded and immediately filled the room with tension. It is a tension which escalates relentlessly over the course of the play, punctuated but never diffused by surreal interruptions from the world beyond (an envelope slipped under the door, the titular dumb waiter and its steady stream of bizarre requests).
Both actors were essentially on stage for the duration of the play, and they absolutely commanded the audience’s attention. Benjamin Warren channelled a psychotic Boycie from Only Fools and Horses in his menacing portrayal of Ben. Tom Hackney was youthful and engaging, and although his London accent seemed less assured, effectively provided the play’s humanity. On the subject of accents, I’ve been reading up on the play subsequently and the class issues involved are very interesting. This didn’t necessarily come through in the Bike Shed’s production and I wonder whether this was deliberately underplayed as irrelevant to a modern audience, or whether the two actors’ accents could have been contrived more carefully.
In all other aspects, David Lockwood’s direction was nigh-on perfect. The attention to detail, including the use of sound and the occasional flickering of the lights, was impressive. However, the play’s ultimate success rests with the actors and their performances, and the director should be especially commended for his work with the actors in blocking the scenes, pacing the drama and creating an utterly convincing relationship between the two protagonists.
The Bike Shed Theatre has another hit on its hands, and having seen it on opening night, I have the feeling that this one is only going to get better as its run progresses. You have until the Saturday, May 7 to get your tickets! Pop to the The Bike Shed Theatre site for more details.