The Dumb Waiter is a one-act play from 1957 that retains an extraordinary hold over the minds of theatre-goers. It’s set in the basement of a Birmingham restaurant where two Cockney hitmen are preparing to execute an unknown victim. A dumb waiter, or shelf on pulleys, descends from above containing requests for two-course meals. Liver and onions are on the menu. Demands for cups of tea and sago pudding are sent down. The nervous thugs start to panic as they struggle to fulfil the instructions arriving from on high. It’s an absurd situation underpinned by an authentic sense of menace and violence. These are not just clownish villains but real criminals trained to kill.
The play is usually done for laughs but it can be performed as a macabre thriller. Jamie Lloyd’s version plumps for comedy. The dumb waiter, with a pinkish internal light and a thumping great soundtrack to herald its movements, becomes a burlesque character in its own right. Only at the end, when its hatch descends in a creepy silence, does it acquire a hint of danger.
The casting of the thugs is eccentric and unsuccessful. Gus is a diffident and garrulous youngster, full of queries and blurted comments, who breaks an unwritten rule by talking openly about his victims. He pesters his older colleague, Ben, to tell him how the corpses are disposed of after a hit. Cynical Ben, sulking over his tabloid, tries to teach Gus by example that a hard-working murderer should speak as sparingly as possible, if at all. Gus doesn’t get it and keeps needling and bothering his mentor.
But the master-servant relationship is undone by the choice of Martin Freeman, 47, as Gus, and of Danny Dyer, 41, as Ben. Physical details accentuate the age gap. Dyer is trim, athletic and dark-haired while his apprentice is jowly, plump and greying at the temples. For most of the play they operate like best buddies in a road movie. There’s a famous passage in which they quibble over the correct term to describe the act of boiling water on a stove. Should one say ‘light the gas’ or ‘light the kettle’? The script clearly intends this to be a power struggle between the upstart Gus and the dominant Ben. But with Freeman and Dyer cast as equals, the subtext vanishes and the dialogue becomes a superficial piece of verbal frippery without a punchline.
Nevertheless this is an enjoyable, light-weight show. Like many overeducated snobs, I’m proud to boast that I’ve never sat through a full episode of EastEnders but I was nevertheless hoping to find Dyer a dextrous and talented thesp. Pinter, who cast him in The Homecoming, clearly thought he was. But the fact is that Martin Freeman is streets ahead of him. Freeman has the amazing ability to fill long moments of stage time with actions and gestures that seem original and absorbing because they have the peculiar quality of incompleteness. Dyer is a more limited talent. As a vaudevillian he’s all right, but not outstanding. In truth, he’s not an actor so much as a fairground attraction, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who studiously exaggerates the mannerisms of his class in order to invite condescension and amusement. It’s a lucrative pose but it’s unlikely to earn him high honours as an actor.
The Dumb Waiter is paired with a radio play, A Slight Ache, which was first broadcast by the Beeb in 1959. It’s hard to know if the central concept is terrible or brilliant. A bit of both maybe. A boringly respectable Home Counties couple, Edward and Flora, are haunted by a mysterious match seller who lurks at the end of their garden all day. The invite him in for a drink and patronisingly buy his entire stock of matches. Each of them corners him for a cosy one-to-one chat. But the match seller doesn’t speak. Does he even exist? He may be a figment of their imaginations, or a supernatural visitor who prompts them to rummage through their secret stock of confessions and fears.
Some of their rambling monologues are oblique and flaccid. Edward, not exactly a thrilling character, is terrified by the prospect of ageing and physical disability. Flora recalls being raped while riding alone as a teenager. ‘It was my first unchaperoned canter.’ A man feigning injury persuaded her to dismount and then attacked her.
This exquisitely spare and suggestive piece of writing is eerily gruesome and yet it omits any specific detail of the assault. As usual, Pinter can’t find a punchline for his ingenious premise so he gives one of the characters a full-blown mental breakdown and the play ends with a lot of tortured rhetoric interspersed with howling.
Watching this show is like going on a five-mile jog. No fun while you’re doing it, but afterwards there’s a sense of achievement.