Here's your starter question. Which play by Harold Pinter features references to a cheese roll and a Humber Super Snipe?
The answer, of course, is The Homecoming, a play revived by Jamie Lloyd in a production at Trafalgar Studios that runs for another couple of weeks. It's a brilliant show with a superb cast which opens up a new way of understanding this most enigmatic, but also straightforward of playwrights. Pinter was notoriously precise about the staging of his plays, with his famous pauses, but he also left plenty of space for a director to take his or her own stylistic approach. Like Shakespeare, Pinter's words and stage directions leave plenty of freedom for interpretation.
Lloyd's angle of vision for this 50th anniversary revival owes a lot to the paintings of Francis Bacon. His designer Soutra Gilmour, frames the stage with a three-dimensional box, just as Bacon does. There is blood on the carpet, and bare lightbulbs; the furniture is minimal and the decor is blank. The scenes are divided by moments of Baconian agony, where the actors scream silently as if they are being dismembered, to a raucous background of noise and light. I've seen this play performed in naturalistic style, but Lloyd's expressionist approach heads in the other direction, using stylised balletic movement and emphatic lighting changes. As far as I'm concerned, both approaches are valid.
The references to Bacon link the play to the sleazy Soho underworld of the 1950s and 1960s and there's a black and white image of Ronnie and Reggie Kray in the programme, just in case we don't get the point. When the sharp-suited pimp Lenny suggests taking his sister-in-law Ruth up to Greek Street and putting her 'on the game', his plan seems chillingly plausible. But despite the odd contemporary reference (who remembers the Humber Super Snipe?), we never lose sight of the universality of the play. The Homecoming, like all Pinter's great plays, is not a period piece at all, and its dialogue is as fresh as the day he wrote it.
The play is anchored by Ron Cook in the role of Max the retired butcher, the father to Lenny, Joey and Teddy. I've seen Cook many times on stage, and he's never done anything better. He captures the empty bombast, the sudden mood swings and the barely-hidden violence of the character. John Simm gives an oleaginous sheen to the role of Lenny, while John Macmillan plays the youngest son Joey as a troubled adolescent who appears already brain-damaged from his boxing bouts. Keith Allen as Max's despised brother Sam sends out slightly too many camp signals to indicate the character's presumed homosexuality. Gary Kemp is excellent as the soft-spoken visiting brother Teddy, who appears unannounced in the middle of the night with his wife Ruth and two suitcases.
So why hasn't Teddy, who teaches philosophy at an American university, announced he's coming in advance? Why has he never told his family that he's been married for six years and has three children? Teddy doesn't explain, neither does Pinter, and more importantly, nobody asks. When Ruth appears, why do the male characters all assume that she's a tart, a scrubber? The idea is patently ridiculous, until at the end of the play it comes true. The twisted misogyny of this all-male family borders on the implausible, until Ruth willingly assumes the destiny they have mapped out for her, deciding to stay in London and abandon her husband and children. But at the end of the play, it's clear that she will always retain the whip hand over her new family.
The highlight of this production for me lies in Gemma Chan's luminous performance as Ruth. Channelling Barbara Goalen and the cool elegant models of the 1950s, she is rivetingly watchable. Every tiny movement and gesture, every expression and every word speak volumes about her character. Her self-control gives her mastery over the male characters, though it breaks down briefly when she allows herself to be kissed, pawed and fondled. Chan suggests a woman whose dominance conceals some kind of deep mental disturbance and unhappiness. As the spotlight fades on this enigmatic woman, who has placed herself in Max the patriarch's armchair, the men are literally at her feet, worshipping her. It's a spellbinding theatrical moment of stillness.