Trafalgar Studios 1
12th December, 2015, matinee
Perfectly-pitched performances and a sleek, stylish design bring out the menace in Jamie Lloyd’s stylistic production but may swamp some of the play’s subtleties.
Pinter’s The Homecoming, first staged in 1965, sees an East End household occupied by a male, misogynist family. One of Max’s sons, Teddy, arrives home from a long hiatus introducing the family to his new wife, Ruth. It is a perfect scenario for power play where subtext is key. In The Homecoming, characters do not hold back in their coarse language, which includes Max’s sexist remarks and Joey’s unprincipled sexual scruples. But elsewhere, they do hold back and the unsaid lies beneath the surface of their language. John Simm is particularly impressive at this; his Lenny carries a menacing undertone behind the informal manner in his initial scene with Ruth. At the start of the play, we hear the men’s attitude to women. Max is vile about his dead wife and Lenny is rude about a woman he claimed he wanted to help. It is then no surprise that, when Ruth arrives, they call her a prostitute. But by the end of the play, Ruth has left Teddy and agrees to stay with his relatives where she will prostitute herself for a living. But it is interesting how the very end sees a reversal of her power.
The play marks an interesting change in Pinter’s work. Its naturalistic setting is a nod to the sort of plays he started his career in as an actor, but he subverts it. Characters don’t behave the way you expect them to, they keep their cards close to their chest, and domestic objects such as a glass of water become threatening. Jamie Lloyd’s production strips away the fussiness of a naturalistic set. Soutra Gilmour’s design is sexy and stylish: red lines frame the stage which is made up of minimal furniture, a staircase, and a door that stands prominently upstage. Richard Howell’s strikingly red lighting further gives the production a stylistic feel. Indeed, it is this that seems to have divided audience members. Overall, I enjoyed the lighting and music as it brought out the play’s menace but, unfortunately, it also swamped some of the play’s subtleties. After hearing of the lauded, naturalistic RSC production, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was invested more in Lloyd’s tricksiness carrying the play rather than the text itself. There are several memorable moments though. Some are when Lloyd concentrates on a moment of action, such as Teddy biting on his hand or Lenny trying to muffle the ticking from his clock. The crescendo of noise and tense lighting may not help to provide answers to these moments but serves the elusiveness of the play. Then there are other moments such as Ruth confronting Lenny about the glass of water, saying ‘If you take that cup, I’ll take you’. It is startling in the boldness of her challenge, highlighted all the more in Gemma Chan’s bluntness, which leads up to her guzzling the whole glass of water. Like the lifting of the chair in A View from the Bridge, it is a clear sign that Ruth, so new to this house, is not to be pushed around by Lenny. But the moment, I thought, was lacking in sexual tension.
Furthermore, the use of space was the least interesting out of the few Pinter plays I’ve seen. Ian Rickson’s production of Old Times at the Harold Pinter Theatre (no less) in 2013 cleverly used space to evoke the London flat that Kate and Anna once lived. It was also used to show how characters gained and lost power. The production of Betrayal in which Simm starred in Sheffield in 2012 used a revolve (inspired by David Hockney’s Life on a Glass Table) to evoke the play’s changes in time. Here, it is interesting how Max is seated centre stage for the start of the second act, to be replaced by Ruth at the play’s culmination. Also, at the start of act two, despite it being Max who holds the conversation, it is Ruth who is very much the focus of that chat. Other than that, spatially, there could have been more in my opinion.
It is the performances that make this production raise its game. Ron Cook’s Max is monstrous and Gemma Chan’s Ruth is confidently intangible. Gary Kemp is brilliant as Teddy and Keith Allen’s camp Sam marvellously shows how he is stuck in Max’s shadow. And the deep-voiced John Macmillan conveys the outside nature of the inept boxer Joey.
There are many memorable parts of Lloyd’s production, aided by the top performances and smoky design which simply yet powerfully evokes the sixties. But somehow, I feel that the play can deliver more.
The Jamie Lloyd Company is doing admirable work in the West End. They are making theatre accessible to more audiences. However, their prices are not the most competitive and the £4.50 programme is informative but doesn’t match their aim to create ‘accessible pricing’.
The Homecoming plays at the Trafalgar Studios until 13th February, 2016.