The Dumb Waiter at the Old Vic – online review

The show was streamed across last week

David Thewlis and Daniel Mays
David Thewlis and Daniel Mays
© Manuel Harlan

f Harold Pinter hadn't gone on to write bigger, better plays, I wonder what we would all think of The Dumb Waiter.

This number, about two hitmen, sitting in a basement, waiting nervously for their next job, was written in 1957, but not performed in London until 1960, two years after the infinitely more complex yet equally chilling The Birthday Party had announced Pinter's comedy of menace and his arrival on the playwriting scene.

It feels like a warm-up act for everything that followed, yet its claustrophobic setting, its sense of malign and unseen forces weighing heavily on people trapped in a confined space, makes it seem constantly relevant, and never more so than now.

Hot on the heels of Jamie Lloyd's revival as part of his 2019 Pinter season, and of last year's production at Hampstead Theatre that marked the anniversary of the play's premiere, the Old Vic is presenting The Dumb Waiter as the final production of its online In Camera series, live performances streamed to the outside world from its auditorium. ( In this case, though, Covid rule relaxation meant that a small audience was actually allowed in the flesh.)

It's a play that works well on film, with the camera settling on the faces of David Thewlis (Ben) and Daniel Mays (Gus) as they chat, get on each other's nerves, try to make tea, argue about whether you light a kettle or put it on and finally, terrifyingly, seek to satisfy the voracious and escalating demands of the dumb waiter of the title.

As the lift crashes down with its unlikely orders – "Scampi?" – the camera view swivels, and for a moment we escape from Hyemi Shin's all-grey set, seeing both the men's agonised reactions to being asked to fulfil the culinary requests and the small audience, sitting in the auditorium. I am not sure that this break in the tension works; and there was, on the night I saw it, a glitch which muffled the play's shocking ending.

Nevertheless, Jeremy Herrin's direction winds the play up corkscrew tight, and the performances are superb. Mays is astonishing, his crumpled clown-face and downturned mouth registering each nuance of each emotion that passes through Gus's mind; his nagging doubts; his horror at the couple's assassination of a woman – "didn't she spread, eh?"; his mounting fear that this is not a job like any other. He's funny, wringing the humour out of the bland words, but the overriding impression he builds is of a man at the mercy of whims and instructions he doesn't even begin to comprehend. His pathos is all.

Thewlis is equally extraordinary. His Ben is clearly in charge, his quiet composure and underlying threat in marked contrast to Gus's anxious whittering. Yet he is also in agony, with a sorrow bubbling up under his impassive surface, a great sadness that rises through his stillness, making him dread the thing to come even as he accepts its inevitability. There's a sculptural quality to his movement, a sense that his situation is both specific and eternal.

The Dumb Waiter might be Pinter minor, but it still speaks loud and clear.