Review: The Homecoming, Trafalgar Studios

Published in Exeunt on November 14, 2015

This is as much a birthday party as a homecoming: Harold Pinter’s play premiered in London 50 years ago. Jamie Lloyd’s production proves that, unlike many texts that become revered modern classics, half a century on The Homecoming has lost none of its power to shock.

A family of men – patriarch Max, his brother Sam, and his two sons, Lenny and Joey – live in a nasty version of domestic stability, where cruelty is standard. They know how to subtly push each other’s buttons as well as being openly, bitchily insulting. Into this charming environment returns prodigal son Teddy, a philosophy lecturer who moved to the US, and his wife Ruth. Games of power play – already sizzling between the male characters – are stoked by her arrival; mummy issues, misogyny, and sexual tension bubble away.

Finally, it all seems to break: in front of her husband, Ruth is kissed by both his brothers, ending up on floor with Joey on top of her. She later agrees to stay with the family in London as her husband returns to America – despite being informed of Lenny’s plan to pimp her out. This treating of a woman like so much butcher’s meat is hard to stomach, whether the play’s a work of genius or not. And whether the play’s actually a feminist work or not.

Lloyd’s production clearly proves it’s both. He pays scalpel sharp attention to the rhythms of Pinter’s tightly constructed dialogue, carving out every menacing sinew and capturing every drop of sinister subtext. But it’s also very funny, in the sheer absurdity of the non-sequiturs or the brilliantly timed banality of Max and Lenny’s Cockney chatter.

He’s assembled a brilliant cast too, whose performances both feel spot-on and slantedly interpretive. John Simm is powerfully creepy as Lenny, with a Cheshire cat grin to haunt your dreams; he has what they call stage presence in spades and is apparently capable of acting with just his eyelids, but it’s his nasal whine that really needles. Ron Cook’s Max has his moments of vulnerability, but he also hacks at other people’s weaknesses, using cruel laughter like an axe. And his insinuations about his boys’ childhoods send chills up the spine. Keith Allen is just right as the hard-working chauffeur Sam, while John MacMillan’s Joey is played very clearly as having learning difficulties. He’s also the only non-white actor, making visible Max’s suggestion that his “slutbitch of a wife” wasn’t entirely faithful…

Gary Kemp’s Teddy initially seems quite normal, but his smug superiority and his abrasive relationship to both his wife and family soon begin to rub like sandpaper. Ruth is played by Gemma Chan; presumably Lloyd saw her in Humans, for she gives a similarly robotic performance here. Icy, glassy, inscrutable, still – and utterly riveting. Real career-best stuff. The audience are as silent and focused as she is – you could hear a pin(ter) drop. And in a play about power-play, she keeps hold of it at almost every moment: never has drinking a glass of water seemed such a display of superiority. If the scene where she’s pawed at by Joey is still a painful watch, even seeming somewhat gratuitous, the next – where she negotiates the terms of staying, being set up in her own flat – reveals that Ruth knows exactly what she’s doing. Victim? Not bleeding likely.

But there is pain there too – Chan conveys a powerful sense of Ruth’s frustration and desperation within her marriage. Textual hints that Teddy has constrained and suffocated her are expanded on with Brechtian silent screams and gasps of release when he leaves the room.

All the characters get such heightened, expressionistic moments. Created as much with Richard Howell’s brilliant lighting design and sound designer George Dennis’ ominous crescendos as with the actors’ big gestures, these out-of-time moments briefly make flesh the underlying pain, rage, and lust of each character. It’s stylishly done – of course it is, it’s a Jamie Lloyd production – but it also ups the atmosphere, jangling the nerves. These tableaux get at the underlying psychological damage that motors these characters strange behaviour; not purist Pinter, perhaps, but effective.

Visually, it’s a stark, sparse production. In Soutra Gilmour’s design, the home is sketched in outline – above a blood-red floor, matching red metal bars create the shape of a house. It brings to mind the structural lines that seem to cage in tormented figures in Francis Bacon’s paintings. There doesn’t seem to be enough furniture, forcing characters to stand, creating a weirdly formal composition as if for a painting. It’s a quotidian detail that nonetheless adds to the background sense of unease.

Period details ground the production in 1965, but Lloyd renders The Homecoming as horribly, freshly gripping as it must have been at its premiere. Happy fiftieth birthday – you haven’t aged a bit.

Where next?