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‘The Dumb Waiter’: Hampstead Theatre finally celebrates its 60th with this menacing Pinter classic

Theatre, Drama Hampstead Theatre , Swiss Cottage Until Saturday January 30 2021
The Dumb Waiter, Hampstead Theatre, 2020
Photo by Helen Maybanks

Time Out says

Hampstead Theatre will celebrate its sixtieth birthday after all as this Pinter revival sneaks back on the schedule in socially-distanced form

It’s not just people who had their birthday plans ruined by the events of 2020: Hampstead Theatre was all set to mark its sixtieth anniversary this year with a special season featuring four classic plays from its history.

The most famous was Harold Pinter’s ‘The Dumb Waiter’, which premiered in 1960 – back when Pinter was an unknown and the ‘theatre’ was actually just actually a church hall hired at weekends. 

Of course, Pinter’s short, surreal drama about two apparent hitmen hiding out… somewhere has grown over the years. Now Alice Hamilton’s production emerges as the lone survivor of the anniversary season, having been on the cusp of opening – with a completely different cast – when the theatres shut in March.

And it’s a rare post-March 2020 theatre production that doesn’t feel like Covid is, on some level, its underlying context. Admittedly ‘The Dumb Waiter’ has resonance: it’s a play about two men isolating. But this take on Pinter’s sleekly menacing short almost seems to exist outside of time. If its last outing, Jamie Lloyd’s 2018 production, felt like it was deliberately looking for links with the Brit gangster flicks of the day, Hamilton’s instead plays up the menace.

Is Alec Newman’s uptight Ben really reading the newspaper he constantly scrutinises? It seems increasingly apparent that he is not, that it’s just a prop to maintain an appearance of calm professionalism in the face of some invisible scrutinising presence represented only by cryptic orders for food, delivered via the titular device. He’s not just angry but visibly afraid as he begs his relentless, nervy partner Gus (Shane Zaza)  to quit with the constant stream of questions about their very weird situation. Precisely what the job they’re supposed to do it seems unimportant: indeed, it feels that this wait is the job, and their orders depend entirely upon how they act while confined. Is there even a world outside? It’s impossible to really know – certainly it all feels very dystopian. All we do know is that by the end, they seem utterly terrified.

Before, I‘ve seen ‘The Dumb Waiter’ treated as lighter Pinter – but Hamilton allows it to flex and growl and menace. This isn’t the cheeriest of birthday parties for Hampstead Theatre – but it’s not one you’ll forget in a hurry.


Venue name: Hampstead Theatre
Address: Eton Avenue
Transport: Tube: Swiss Cottage
Price: £18-£30, £10-£15 concs

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