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.
Ben (Jason Isaacs) and Gus (Lee Evans) are two small-time contract killers awaiting instructions in the grimy basement of an abandoned building in Birmingham. Their beds are jammed up against the wall. An apparently disused dumb waiter – the conveyor of food orders to an upper level – suddenly springs into action, rushing up and down with a sinister thunder like an animated guillotine.
Gus is still haunted by the memory of their last job, a messy business. That girl’s body didn’t half spread, didn’t it? He wonders who clears up after them. Ben is biding his time, regurgitating newspaper stories about an old man who tried to cross a busy road by squeezing himself (fatally) underneath a lorry, or a child who killed a cat.
Life is cheap, nasty and brutal. But who is giving the orders? How on earth are Gus and Ben to respond to requests for braised steak and sago pudding, or liver and onions and jam tart? They decide they had better send something up, so the panicky Gus loads the tray with crisps, milk and an Eccles cake. He seems to take the instructions literally, whereas the more taciturn, authoritative Ben may be dealing with coded orders. The final instruction will destroy their double act.
For that is the heart of a piece that obviously relates to Samuel Beckett’s tramps waiting for Godot, or the cross talk patter of music hall comedians. 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. These two guys have really landed themselves in something, and they are in it up to their necks. The tensions bubble in the chat about whether you “light the kettle” or “put the kettle on,” and whether or not Aston Villa might be playing away.
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. One just wishes that Isaacs and Lee had spread their wings a bit further and included more value-for-money Pinter material, as Jason Watkins and Toby Jones did in a superb Oxford Playhouse Pinter bill (this play and three sketches) three years ago. For a start, they might have shown the Haymarket gang how to play the taxicab sketch Victoria Station, an ideal companion piece.