Lee Evans and Jason Isaacs star in Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, which opened last night (8 February 2007, following previews from 2 February) at Trafalgar Studios, directed by Harry Burton, for a limited run to 24 March 2007 (See News, 2 Jan 2007).

The 1960 play, one of Pinter’s earliest, is set in an airless basement in Birmingham, where two hit men await instructions for their next killing. The men – one strong and silent and the other incessantly talkative - realise they’re not alone when the dumb waiter (the mini-elevator used to transport meals and dirty dishes between floors) starts moving.

Overnight critics delighted in the menace and suspense built up by the play and the strong performances of the actors – particularly Evans – who, they said, bought out plenty of comedy in Burton’s slick production. However some felt that despite the production’s positives, at just over an hour it did not constitute value for money, and several critics said it should have been paired with another piece, or some of Pinter’s sketches to give a full evening’s entertainment.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (3 stars) – “After the debacle of Pinter's People at the Haymarket, it is something of a relief to have an instant reminder of the playwright’s distinction in this beautifully weighted and acted revival of one of his best early short plays. Even with reduced ticket prices, though, it makes for a slender evening of just one hour’s playing time…. Lee Evans has already proved his brilliance as a clown actor in Beckett’s Endgame. He starts here on quite a high-pitched tone, but manages astonishing gradations within it. He makes of tying his bootlaces a mime of hypnotic comedy, his defence of his own sad sack status (‘I’ve got interests’) a curiously sweet and endearing confession of inadequacy. Isaacs bats away his flickering complaints with a sternness that simultaneously hints at his own vulnerability…. It is all in the detail, and Harry Burton’s meticulously paced production does not miss a trick. Peter McKintosh’s design is grubbily spot on.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (5 stars) - “This is the real McCoy. After the grisly cock-up of Pinter's People, it is bracing to encounter Harry Burton's superbly orchestrated revival of this 1957 hour-long piece… two crucial design decisions reinforce the play's political overtones. Peter McKintosh's basement is the dingiest I've ever seen, suggesting these two killers are on the lowest ladder of the "organisation". And the dumb waiter is no mere comic device, but a lift that descends from a vast height with the resonance of a guillotine. When it falls for the last time, we know a murder is about to take place…. Evans has the prickliness of a man who senses something is amiss…. Evans has created a real character. The same applies to Jason Isaacs' Ben…. That is what makes this such a fine revival. It reminds us that Pinter knows exactly how to balance comedy and fear to imply that we are all in the grip of invisible, higher powers.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (5 stars) - “How pleasing to discover this 1957 one-acter, a black comedy of suspense and menace, dove-tailed with a cat-and-mouse thriller in which the mouse never realises he is being hunted, has lost none of its potency. The play's abiding strangeness and capacity to induce mystified laughter lingers on, thanks to Harry Burton's beautifully nuanced production and even more to a mesmerising, definitive performance by Lee Evans in which comedy and pathos are entwined…. The suspense comes in disturbing flurries, entwined with absurdist comedy. A letter containing 12 matches is thrust under the door; a brandished revolver sparks the realisation the men are hired killers waiting their victim's arrival… A palpable sense of foreboding rises as they rehearse their familiar, murderous moves. The catastrophe comes hurtling out of the blue. Full price tickets for 60 minutes is a bit steep, but wow - what a vintage theatrical hour it is!”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “You get a real bang for your bucks here, with a wonderfully lean, darkly comic and suspenseful script and cracking performances from that most versatile of comedians, Lee Evans, paired with Jason Isaacs… Pinter wrote The Dumb Waiter at the start of his career as a dramatist back in 1957, yet almost everything that makes his best work distinctive is already in place, not least the sense of edgy unease and the spare precision of his language, which turns the most banal exchanges into often blackly comic stage poetry…. the play itself still feels startlingly fresh and sharp, not least in the chilling ingenuity of its final twist…. Evans manages to be funny, contemptible and terrified all at the same time… Isaacs provides the perfect foil as the taciturn Ben…. The Dumb Waiter may be short, but there is no mistaking its status as a groundbreaking modern classic.”

  • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent – “Menace hardly figures in this rather lightweight version, in part because of its likeable actors. Peter McKintosh's basement, a room with all the charm of a long-abandoned underground toilet, is actually more oppressive than the mood created by the two, who wait for orders of an unknown kind from an unknown master. Evans makes an exceptionally gormless gunman but his overstated manner - he barks his lines from the beginning and rushes a few - loses much of the character's vulnerability…. the dumb waiter contributes more terror than the two men - perhaps because Pinter's style of evasive, inconsequential chatter is now so familiar that the audience is too ready to laugh to show it gets the nasty joke. The production should become more enjoyable once it relaxes a bit.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell