The Dumb Waiter is such a familiar play that it can almost be seen as a template for scores of other blackly comedic works about individuals caught up in a system they barely understand, and which blend edgy humour with violence and murder. It is perhaps the archetypal ‘assassin' play, which paved the way for writers like Martin McDonagh - particularly The Lieutenant of Inishmore and In Bruges - and Jez Butterworth, whose Mojo seemed to be almost a parody of Pinter.
This viewing of The Dumb Waiter underlines how artfully playful Pinter allowed himself to be in this very early work (written in 1957 and first performed in London in 1960). He indulges in the luxury of teasing the audience in a much more open, approachable way than in later plays. He builds riff upon riff in mundane subjects such as ‘lighting the kettle', football teams playing away, bizarre happenings reported in newspapers, all of which heighten the tension about the men's predicament, whilst also being laugh-out-loud funny. It is a clinical skill.
And here the play is given a performance of clinical precision in the acting too. Clive Wood as the senior hitman, Ben, and Joe Armstrong as his accomplice, Gus, are both utterly compelling in their incomprehension and their determination to do a good job, even if it can get ‘very messy'.
The first time I saw this play, many years ago, I found the arbitrary nature of the intrusion into their temporary world by an unknown power too arch, too mechanical, too frankly unbelievable. It undermined the serious intent. It compromised the simple metaphorical grandeur of the play. Now, many productions later, and particularly here, I am only too aware that this was a complete misjudgement. The joke-like intrusions – an envelope full of matches pushed under the door, the mysterious flushing of the lavatory offstage, the increasingly exotic demands for meals – are the point.
They are preposterous, they are the stuff of TV comedy routines, but it is because Ben and Gus take them utterly seriously that they work within the context of the play. The men scramble around trying to assemble some bits of food to send up in the dumb waiter because they are accustomed to having to do exactly what they are told to do. To them it is completely logical to obey a cryptic demand, however unreasonable.
They are engaged in a ‘profession' that most of us would find unthinkable, yet they are as vulnerable and insecure as any of us, and the puppets of a system which toys with them for its own amusement. The political statement is about as broad as it comes, but it has been echoed and elaborated many times since, by Pinter himself and by others (think Martin McDonagh again, in The Pillowman).
Quite simply The Dumb Waiter is a classic, and this production by Jamie Glover, with a stunning, all-encompassing design by Andrew D Edwards, does it full justice.