Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Theatre review: The Homecoming

Jamie Lloyd has dropped the "Trafalgar Transformed" branding but he still returns to Trafalgar Studio 1 for his third season of plays; and after the first season's The Hothouse, both Harold Pinter and John Simm are back on the menu with The Homecoming. Somewhere in a dodgy corner of East London is the house where Teddy (Gary Kemp) grew up; he left six years ago, just about keeping in touch enough to let his father Max (Ron Cook) know that he's moved to an American university to teach philosophy. What he neglected to tell his family was that just before he left he got married; so his return in the middle of the night is a surprise but an even bigger one is his wife Ruth (Gemma Chan.) The menacing, aggressively macho environment is one Teddy soon regrets returning to. But far from feeling threatened, Ruth actually seems to thrive in her new surroundings.

Pinter is a writer associated with a very specific style, but while this is marketed as the 50th anniversary production, it isn't one to take his staging instructions to the letter. I often talk about the vague but undeniable menace that underlies Pinter's work, and although The Homecoming is one of the plays where it's most apparent, Lloyd goes in a different direction.

Just as Soutra Gilmour's set eschews a literal 1960s living room to expose the action in the middle of red beams, so the performances expose the core characteristic of each family member: Teddy is the prissy academic, middle son Lenny (Simm) the spivvy pimp with a proud history of violence against women, uncle Sam a surprisingly restrained display of camp from Keith Allen. Although for me the portrayal of youngest son Joey as a hulking simpleton was laid on a bit thick, John MacMillan barking his lines in a monotone like Frankenstein's monster.

A lot of my interval and post-show discussion with Christopher about the production mentioned Ron Cook's Max, and the fact that despite his walking stick he walks up the stairs normally and unassisted; Christopher initially thought Cook was simply giving a lazy performance but I thought it was deliberate, and in particular I think it's part of the same theme of spelling out the unstated: Just as the armchair nobody but Max is allowed to sit in is his throne, the cane is his sceptre as well as a weapon to beat his family with; if that's clearly what it's for, why should he pretend to limp? As for the highly controversial figure of Ruth, Lloyd has courted something uncomfortable in casting Chan, offering up the stereotype of the subservient Asian woman then subverting it: Chan delivers her lines to the men in a steady sing-song with unusual emphases, as if she's literally hypnotising them.

Tonight's performance started half an hour late, with warning texts and emails sent out just hours before to warn of the change in start time. An usher told me it was because Gary Kemp had a prior engagement and it had been decided it would be better to start late than to put on an understudy. It turns out they'd prioritised Kemp doing a promo on The One Show over starting on time, which to me is a pretty disrespectful way to treat an audience who'd paid up to 70 quid for the privilege. At least Lloyd's novel approach of avoiding the usual hyper-realistic style and speeding things up meant it didn't end up being too late an evening. And if it does mean some of the brooding atmosphere is lost, this Homecoming reveals some new angles to its story of precarious, sinister gender politics. At the end of the day I don't want to see the same production of a show every time, and I think it's important not to treat Pinter with kid gloves, and allow his plays some of the flexibility of interpretation other writers are given.

The Homecoming by Harold Pinter is booking until the 13th of February at Trafalgar Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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