Explaining the link between plays chosen for his recent seasons at Trafalgar Studios, Jamie Lloyd stated that they all question what it is to be British. He now brings his company back to the same theatre with a 50th Anniversary revival of Harold Pinter’s masterpiece, The Homecoming, a biting, dark comedy that rattles the foundations of the institution at the very heart of British life – the family. Lloyd’s production is charged with nervous energy, but takes meticulous care to perfect every inflection and emphasis loaded into Pinter’s dialogue. The setting is the living room of a working class London home, presented in Soutra Gilmour’s design as an open sided box, with its entrance/exit door set apart at the rear. The centrepiece of the room is an armchair, more a throne, normally occupied by the patriarch, Max (Ron Cook), a belligerent widower who spits out abuse at his family as if compensating for age having diminished his physical prowess. His brother Sam is a boastful chauffeur who “never married” and Keith Allen’s mincing, limp-wristed performance leaves no room for doubt as to why this would have been so. Max’s son Lenny is a chip off the old block, John Simm making him a sinister and menacing figure. He looks like a city executive, but is, in fact, a pimp, casually throwing accounts of violence and even rape into conversations. Younger son Joey is a dim-witted boxer, given a formidable physical presence by John Macmillan. The four men live together, sparring verbally with each other to sharpen their masculinity. The homecoming is that of oldest son Teddy (Gary Kemp assuming an upper class accent), a doctor of philosophy back from six years in the United States. His quiet acquiescence to the malign grip of his kin signifies that, in reality, he has never travelled very far from home. He brings with him Ruth, the wife that he married, unknown to the family, in London prior to his departure. The family greets her as a “whore”, which we learn may not be far from the truth, as Pinter continues to scrape away the household’s thin veneer of respectability. The arrival of this newcomer gives Pinter the opportunity to explore feminist themes relating to family life, by countering the men’s assumption that a woman’s roles must be limited to cooking, cleaning and bestowing sexual favours. Gemma Chan’s Ruth has the steel to upset the balance of power between genders; her calm exterior resembles that of a prim governess, but it masks a calculating mind and a manipulative disposition. She may be outnumbered five to one, but she is set on becoming queen bee in this hive. It is remarkable that hardly anything of significance in the play feels dated after the passing of half a century. Pinter’s subversive humour is typically enigmatic, at its most subtle when seemingly most crude, most unsettling when generating most hilarity. In painting this portrait of dysfunction, he is questioning whether families are held together by affection or just by habit. He is also telling us that, however far we journey, in some way, we all come home eventually to our familial roots. A chilling message indeed when the home is one such as this.
Performance date: 21 November 2015