The Homecoming (Trafalgar Studios)
Jamie Lloyd directs the Pinter classic with a cast including Keith Allen and Gemma Chan
"How can the unknown merit reverence?" Lenny's brainteaser juts out of the 50th anniversary production of The Homecoming. Director Jamie Lloyd might be asking the same of us. Instead of Pinteresque mystique, he chisels the play open to make its implications explicit.
Instead of warped naturalism - what critic John Lahr once called "a precarious balance of ambiguity and actuality" - Lloyd gives us something flatter and expressionistic: not brooding comedy of menace, but disjointed vaudeville a la Dario Fo. Out go the usual Pinteresque trappings - those hanging, livewire pauses; stale air and squalor; unclear motives jostling beneath weaponised words. In come right-angled elbows, blank poker faces and expressionless Rosetta Stone voices. It's both strange again and clearer than ever, yet somehow unsatisfying as well: like Pinter played with a sporting handicap, his best moves banned.
Nonetheless, Lloyd lets you see the play's workings afresh - its power play, in particular. When philosophy professor Teddy (Gary Kemp) and his new wife Ruth (Gemma Chan) return from his American university to his East End family home they step inside like royalty on a state visit, shoulder-to-shoulder and serene as Japanese emperors. That's a direct challenge to his cantankerous old dad Max (Ron Cook), who rules the all-male household from his armchair throne like a boil-washed King Lear. Queer uncle Sam plays mum, while brothers Lenny and Joey, pimp and boxer respectively, earn their keep.
Lloyd makes quite clear that these men make a spectrum of masculinity - Keith Allen's Sam positively minces and pouts; John Macmillan's basso buffo Joey is all brawn and no brain. They're like a pride of lions (George Dennis's electro-organ soundtrack contains the occasional roar) or a Neanderthal clan and Lloyd gives them a gangster-flick gloss too, almost turning Guy Ritchie-style glamour against itself. Teddy, who's suave as a Mad Men executive, seems to have rejected them for middle-class civility - and, to his family, that smacks of superiority.
What sort of homecoming is this then: Teddy's prodigal return or, as his family prize his marriage apart, his just deserts? There's a tremendous moment as John Simm's horn-voiced Lenny exacts some kind of revenge on his brother by proposing Ruth stay on with the family and go on the game. Kemp sits on a suitcase, unblinking, lips sealed, and never objects: an older brother rising above the jibes of a junior. He's so superior that he walks right out the door, quite convinced his wife will follow. More fool him.
Because this is Ruth's homecoming too, and Gemma Chan - doll-like and impervious - makes it quite clear why Ruth stays. There is, she suggests, a power in subjugation: to be needed is to be prized. Teddy's offer - "You can help me with my lectures when we get back" - shows how little she's valued in America, the land of feminine mystique. Here, in London, she can dominate and Lloyd's final image pushes Pinter to its max. The men aren't merely curled up at her feet, they look like corpses. Mother. Whore. Femme fatale.
For all this, though - and for all Lloyd's Pinterian pedigree - the contrarian approach gets in the way. It's not just that Soutra Gilmour's jaunty, angular design makes the living room an abstract space - a blood-red carpet and an arterial outline - but that Lloyd never lets us believe in these characters. You don't feel their perversion, so much as have it demonstrated. It's like watching an annotated text, but in making the mechanics clear, Lloyd gives up the mystery. Sometimes, it's better not to know.
The Homecoming runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 13 February.