The Dumb Waiter & A Slight Ache

Artistic Director James Haddrell has made a brave and perhaps rather surprising choice for the Greenwich Theatre’s first in-house production of 2023. Pairing The Dumb Waiter (1960) with the less-widely performed A Slight Ache (1958) provides a double bill of Harold Pinter that might provoke a mixed reception, but should appeal to aficionados of the man.

An opportunity to reflect on Pinter's impact on the theatre.

A Slight Ache was written for radio. The issue of its suitability for the stage largely revolves around the appearance of the third character. The opening sees Flora (Kerrie Taylor) and Edward (Jude Akuwudike) seated in their garden taking afternoon tea. A wasp begins to buzz around. The sound effect adds to the humour inherent from the outset and comes courtesy of Sound Designer Paul Gavin, who pays enhancing attention to detail throughout. Akuwudike plays the part with stern, intolerant determination; a pedantic man accustomed to giving orders and getting his own way with his wife, whom he clearly expects to be obedient and dutiful. Taylor gives Flora an air of resignation to her husband’s demeanour, but by no means allows her to be downtrodden. It’s a relationship that has perhaps survived too many years, but nothing is going to change now. The petty disputes surrounding the wasp provide an insight into the nature of their coexistence.

Across the road is The Matchseller (Tony Mooney) who never seems to sell anything. To Flora he has always been there, but she isn’t bothered by his presence, whereas Edward is infuriated by him and wants to know what he’s up to. They lure him into the house. In a series of scenes, in which they are each alone with him, they attempt to engage him in conversation, a futile activity as the man remains silent throughout. Undeterred, they begin to muse about life, pour out their frustrations, confess to regrets and reveal fantasy dreams, all of which expose the shortcomings of the life they have had together.

Putting the play on stage requires the silent role of The Matchselller to take physical form. With nothing to say he clearly wouldn't be present in the radio version and could easily be just a figment of their imaginations, which leaves audiences with the opportunity to ponder about his existence or otherwise. Here, however, he appears as a shabbily-dressed, unkempt individual who perhaps roughs it on the streets. This heightens the comedy of Taylor’s lustful seduction scenes but also give them an element of incongruence.

During the interval Alice Carroll’s versatile suburban house is stripped bare and adapted to meet the needs of The Dumb Waiter, not least with what appeared to be a cupboard at the back of the room predictably, but nonetheless satisfyingly, becoming the door to the dumb waiter, whose rattling pulleys are this play’s counterpart to the wasp. Tony Mooney now has a chance to speak and is joined in conversation by Jude Akuwudike as they form the hitmen team of Ben and Gus waiting in the basement of a restaurant to go out on a job.

Akuwudike transforms himself into a slightly nervy individual, anticipating what is to come and pacing around asking questions of Ben, who remains largely buried in his newspaper taking things in his stride. It’s not as though they haven’t done all this before. Forasmuch as Akuwudike is energised, Mooney is perhaps a little too laid back in his responses, but it makes for a significant contrast in the manner of the characters. Pinter’s concern for the balance and exercise of power is clear in their relationship and in their both being subjected to the instructions of the boss. There is also a pedantic terminological debate about the kettle that matches the bee sting conversation in the previous play along with an intervening third party in the form of the dumb waiter itself and the unseen people upstairs who keep sending down food orders to two men who have almost nothing. The concept of dumbness takes many forms as the situation becomes increasingly absurd.

The double bill makes for an interesting time and provides an opportunity to reflect on Pinter's impact on the theatre in developing a radical writing style, along with others, that defined the period and that is now over sixty years old, but still a matter for debate.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

Both The Dumb Waiter and A Slight Ache were written by Harold Pinter in the late 1950s; two dark, unmissable comedies that explore the political machinations of those in power and those who are powerless. If you love Pinter at his influential, poetic, dramatic and provocative best, you’ll love this duo of brilliant one-act plays.

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