November 27 2015
New production of old classic is a bruising reminder that sex, class and power are all unhappily interwoven…
IT WAS A TIME when men were men, and women were…well…that seems to be one of the most urgent questions in Harold Pinter’s seminal play, “The Homecoming”.
Now 50 years old and recreated by The Jamie Lloyd Company at Trafalgar Studios in London with a starry cast, it’s both compelling and slightly odd – as no doubt Pinter intended.
Regarded as one of his best, it’s full of difficult and awkward questions, if you wish to delve behind the dramatics.
Set some time in the 1950s, it’s a play essentially about a North London family – a working-class unit with a very old school Dad.
He’s a retired butcher, while his chauffeur brother and two sons all live under the same roof.
That’s quite Asian and probably more common at that time, than it was to be later, when many offspring fled the nest as soon as – and could do so easily – but how times have come full circle?
Into this mix, is the visit, ‘homecoming’ of Teddy (Gary Kemp) and his confident, beautiful, strong-willed wife, Ruth (Gemma Chan) and their arrival provides the explosions Pinter will later detonate.
In the couple’s absence, it’s an extremely masculine and testosterone-filled environment with each man trying to assert his identity within a very clearly defined hierarchical structure.
Pinter had a Jewish heritage, and from an Asian perspective too, that type of power dynamic is very familiar and familial.
At the top is Max (Ron Cook), who on the face it seems reasonable, until he starts talking about his late wife…then he spits unpleasant homilies in almost Alf Garnett-like fashion. There is a clear air of menace too, but in Max’s present case, it is either spent or is just disturbingly dormant.
Brother Sam (Keith Allen) is camp and gay and the only one, with as much as what looks like a proper job, ferrying around the rich and privileged and being party to a secret or two.
In Pinter’s world, he represents an aspect of masculinity, probably overlooked or quite repressed at the time, one suspects. Allen plays it with slight comic edges and in doing so the character isn’t wholly sympathetic. None of them are really.
Older son Lenny (John Simm) is a smooth talking wide boy, who one assumed worked in a bank or has some such salaried employment, but it turns out he’s a pimp.
Joey (John Macmillan) is the youngest son and has a brooding, slightly unsettling air about him. A boxer by night, he’s the most macho, least cerebral, and most physical of the four men who occupy much of the first half.
Everything changes with the arrival of Teddy and Ruth. She’s a looker and the boys take quick note. Teddy is far removed the world of his family; he’s an academic and a philosopher. He has moved to the US with his British wife and the couple have three boys, all unknown to the others, until the couple’s sudden, unannounced arrival. Now self-consciously middle class, Teddy’s the odd one out of this lot.
Chan as Ruth has a truly enigmatic presence throughout – she says very little but emits a strong erotic power that casts a powerful spell.
In a rather stale marriage, she warms to the others, or warms them up and enjoys her easy effects. There’s almost a Sharon Stone “Basic Instinct” moment.
Mayhem and family disorder ensue – though with much less aggression than you might imagine.
Ruth is tougher and stronger than she appears on the surface, but underneath it’s hard to read her motivations and that’s because this is not a play set in absolute realism.
Its strength lies partially in the way Pinter takes us down one road and then deviates into rougher, bumpier terrain with no obvious direction of travel and it does come as a bit of a shock.
In doing so, Pinter asks the big questions but arrives at no easy answers.
Jamie Lloyd’s direction is tight and unsparing – and the cast are all good, with each character displaying much in just a little and even more so with Cook and Chan.
This is not for everyone, especially if you just want entertainment and diversion, but that’s not the fun and crackle of Pinter, is it? (Sailesh Ram)
ACV rating: *** ½ (out of five)
Main picture: Teddy (Gary Kemp), Ruth (Gemma Chan) and Lenny (John Simm) all pictures by Marc Brenner
‘The Homecoming’ until February 13, Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY; shows 7.30pm online booking: Tuesday-Saturdays (2.30pm matinee, Thursday & Saturday)