The Dumb Waiter review: ‘jarring ambiguity’

By Cameron Harris 

Last night was my first visit to Durham’s City Theatre. There aren’t many spaces like it: a small venue with a severely limited seating capacity and one exit. Not one for the claustrophobes or the weak-bladdered. Thankfully, the stage fits the room well and this makes for an intimate, even cosy set up. Crammed into the corner of the room, I could not imagine too grand a play being shown here; the space calls for something more intense. Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter fits that bill perfectly. Fourth Wall Theatre could not have chosen a better venue for their new production.

The play opens with two men sitting on two beds, one reading a newspaper, the other staring ahead. Obvious questions as to who the men are, how they are related, where they came from, and where they are going are left unanswered. It’s a bit of a tease, but it makes writing a spoiler-free review much easier. Keeping the audience engaged in a play with such an ambiguous set up cannot be easy, so kudos is due to its directors, Jack Whitmore and Fergus Neville, for this and much else besides.

The great joy of The Dumb Waiter is this jarring ambiguity and the formulation of more questions than answers. As Gus (Jamie Prowse) paces up and down the stage, inspecting the contents of his shoes, the audience is given time to adjust to this atypical arrangement. Prowse’s performance is unsettling and eerily quiet at first, but it’s all part of perfecting those Nobel-prize winning silences that we expect from Pinter. Both actors, Prowse and Nathan Chatelier, do a decent job of nailing those moments of quiet. The tension between the characters moves in peaks and troughs, always keeping the audience on their toes. Both men come to the verge of breakdown but something between them keeps them from the brink. This stops the play descending into anything too weird or experimental, and Whitmore and Neville deserve praise for striking a balance between the sinister and the comic in this production.

Even still, accepting the play’s reality is not always easy. If the exact identities of the men are left intentionally unclear (hired killers seems most probable), then even less clear – and certainly less intentional – are their origins. Their attempts at cockney/east-end accents are bold to say the least. Ben (Chatelier) makes Dick van Dyke sound like Danny Dyer. Perhaps a more subtle approach to dialect might be taken in future. Chatelier might also consider blinking less – chaps with the confidence to use a gun do not blink. And while we’re at it, the production team might have tried a bit harder finding trousers that actually fit Chatelier: the poor bloke looked like a hipster whose cat had just died.

At least the set designer seemed to understand the basic principle of less is more (though that doesn’t apply to trousers!). The space on stage is minimal and used to terrifying effect. The walls seem to close in around the audience as the tension and vicious energy between Ben and Gus gradually comes to a head. Every time the eponymous dumb waiter moves and interruptions come from the outside world, a violent noise echoes through the tiny auditorium. With bangs, slams and whirls going on between nerve-wracking silences, it was no surprise to see a few audience members bounce around in their seats. It’s a thrilling performance and no mistake.

You won’t regret seeing this production of The Dumb Waiter. Sure there are wobbly moments – I won’t go after Chatelier anymore, but a more polished performance from him might improve matters considerably. Problems set up are not resolved, but if you don’t like that sort of thing then avoid Pinter generally. If you’re something of a Pinter enthusiast, however, then you won’t be disappointed. For all its faults, this is a slick production by Fourth Wall and a night at City Theatre is a unique experience in itself. Better still the show is just over an hour long; the pubs will still be quiet by the time you leave.

‘The Dumb Waiter’ will be performed at Durham’s City Theatre from Thursday, 16th February until Saturday, 18th February at 19:30. Book your tickets here

Photograph: Fourth Wall Theatre Company

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