The Dumb Waiter and A Slight Ache

The Dumb Waiter
Photo credit: @danny_with_a_camera

For the latest in-house production at Greenwich Theatre, director James Haddrell is following in the footsteps of Jamie Lloyd (and Pinter at the Pinter) by staging a double bill of Harold Pinter’s short plays A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter. They are paired in part because they were both written in the 1950s (The Dumb Waiter in 1957, A Slight Ache the following year), but also because they explore the dynamics of power and powerlessness – albeit in two very different settings.

A Slight Ache starts with a married couple (Edward & Flora) at breakfast, Edward talking about how it feels as if he hasn’t slept, and both doing their best to get rid of a wasp that has become stuck in the pot of jam. Edward becomes fixated on an old matchseller who seems to regularly stand outside their house, despite them not living on a particularly busy thoroughfare; they speculate over his living arrangements and motives, before deciding to invite him in in order to ask him directly.

This short piece was originally performed as a radio play, so when it is staged there is a decision to be made over whether or not to cast someone as the lineless matchseller – in this instance, as there is a company of three performing both short plays, it meant having a physical representation of the matchseller was feasible. It may seem like a more ‘obvious’ way to go (having no one in the role does make it more overtly psychological), however Matt Keywood’s lighting design plays a key role in amping up the atmosphere and giving it an eerie feel: the splash of red at the denouement and the spotlight focused on an empty chair are especially spine-chilling moments. This all works in conjunction with marvellous performances from Jude Akuwudike & Kerrie Taylor; Akuwudike portrays Edward as the absent-minded professor type, which plays up to the character’s insecurities about growing old, whilst Taylor’s Flora is slightly more pragmatic – and definitely more capable than she first appears.

The Dumb Waiter finds hitmen Ben & Gus waiting in a basement, ready to take on their next job when the call comes. Ben whiles away the time by reading his newspaper and occasionally telling Gus about certain stories, whereas Gus has more of a fidgety energy and insists on asking Ben lots of questions while he ties his shoes & generally prepares himself. The unexpected delivery of a food order from a dumbwaiter at the back of the room sets the pair on edge; they end up deciding to send some snacks to the mystery orderer, stalling for time as they try to work out who it could be. And just when will their boss call?

There are shades of Waiting for Godot in this short play, as the pair of hitmen do seem to be waiting around with no end in sight – and they certainly have more questions than there are answers. On the whole it’s a very funny play, despite the mundane and everyday nature of their interactions; even a debate about “lighting the kettle” and “putting on the kettle” manages to have a punchline of sorts. As this all takes place in a single location, the production is reliant on both the surroundings (Alice Carroll’s set design provides a claustrophobic feel) and the chemistry of the actors – Tony Mooney (Ben) & Jude Akuwudike (Gus) have this in spades, and both have excellent comic timing. They’re also both adept at utilising the so-called ‘Pinter Pause’, making silence go as far as an extra line would.

This is a very welcome and well put-together production of two of Pinter’s short plays; my only little nitpick would be that it might have been interesting to experiment a little with at least one of them, rather than going ‘traditional’ for both. Something that immediately springs to mind is having a same-sex couple in A Slight Ache, and then having the same pair of actors play Ben & Gus in The Dumb Waiter (they do often come across as a bickering married couple) – but perhaps ensuring that each actor has the chance to play the character who ends up in a position of power. Alternatively, a female actor could play one of the hitmen (or change it to hitwoman?) and apply the same rules. Either way, it would mean a cast of two and a different decision to be made about the matchseller. I don’t know whether this would work in practice, but it does seem about time that there is some more innovation in putting on Pinter’s plays. Regardless of this, it’s well worth a trip to Greenwich for this top quality show.

A Slight Ache
Photo credit: @danny_with_a_camera

My verdict? An excellent production of two pieces from the Harold Pinter short play collection, with marvellous performances all round.

Rating: 4*

The Dumb Waiter and A Slight Ache run as a double bill at Greenwich Theatre until 3 June 2023. Tickets are available online or via the box office.

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