Written and first performed in 1965, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming has lost none of its shocking impact on a contemporary audience, forcing us, as it does, to laugh at what we find most disturbing.
A dark Freudian family drama, the piece begins when Teddy, a successful academic, returns home from America, his wife - former photographic model Ruth - in tow. In six years, little has changed in the working-class London household, where Teddy's father Max lives with his younger brother Sam and his two other sons, Lenny and Joey.
With this homecoming, however, things are about to change considerably. Ruth's introduction to the all-male environment exposes a tangle of rage, bitterness and confused sexuality. Within a short time, both Lenny and Joey are making advances towards their brother's wife, whose response to these, and to the men's bullying manner and insecurities, is shocking in the extreme.
With the combination of such a modern classic and star casting in the form of Pete Postlethwaite, this latest in the Royal Exchange's 25th anniversary season always promised to be a powerful offering. And it doesn't disappoint. Director Greg Hersov achieves a tone which is menacing, erotic and threatening all at once; the shocking and the banal sharply juxtaposed throughout, with the Pinteresque pauses and silences adding nicely to the suspense. Turn by turn, the cast also do very well to mine the piece for both its humour (delivered with blistering accuracy) and its horror (just as you start to relax into laughter, the sinister undertones emerge).
For his part, Postlethwaite is well worth his top billing - superb as the alternately violent and cringing Max, saying as much with a look as with his words.
Elsewhere, Eamon Boland, the affable Sam, gives a heart-warming performance as he wrestles with repressed emotions and longstanding resentments. Simone Lahbib's portrayal of Ruth is excellently understated, so poised and indiscernible, and Michael Higgs plays Teddy with such subtlety that the surface appearance of a happy family life is undermined by what lurks beneath. Full marks too to Paul Hilton who keeps reminding us that Lenny, although sharp, funny and intelligent, is also a violent bully, and to James Hillier as the youngest son desperately in need of some serious mothering.
Ruth's eventual role within these brutal power games is intricately connected with the enigmatic figure of the family's long-dead mother, Jessie, who is both reviled and idolised by her survivors. But just who is in control here now - the men or the woman? This is left tantalisingly unclear.
The production's brooding atmosphere is enhanced by some ominous lighting care of Bruno Poet and belied by Laurie Dennett's comfortably functional 1960s living room set - which houses a very dysfunctional family indeed.
- Val Bennion