Image credited to A² Productions.
Coming off the back of 5th week’s welfare, A² Productions’ performance of Harold Pinter’s The Dumber Waiter was a real shock to the system. For those who don’t know, The Dumb Waiter follow’s Ben and Gus through an evening of uncertainty punctuated by nonsensical communications brought down by a dumb waiter. Yes, I realise this is not the most precise plot summary you will have read. But, in my defence the combination of Pinter’s intentional allusiveness, an ultimate lack of overarching plot, and a fear of spoiling anything, I am rather limited – even Wikipedia is looking a little bare on this one.
I went into the play almost entirely ignorant; I knew it was by Pinter and was told if done well it would be great, but if done badly it would a painful hour of my life. Once the play started, I could see how easily it could fall short; with only one room depicted and two people on stage, audience attention was forced into almost a microscopic degree. But, in one of the most engaging pieces of acting I have seen in Oxford, Noah Radcliffe-Adams (Ben) and Henry Calcutt (Gus) by no means let me down.
From the moment you walked into the black box that is The Michael Pilch Studio, a sense of what was to come was created. Both Radcliffe-Adams and Calcutt were already on stage, already performing giving us a sense of their respective characters. Radcliffe-Adams’ Ben was sat up on his bed quietly reading a newspaper, Calcutt’s Gus was a ball of angst as he tossed and turned on his bed, got up and moved furniture, flitted on and off stage. The two very different impressions given in this introduction to Ben and Gus continued with the play. Gus’ inane questions and chatter about crockery, biscuits, and sports pictures contrasted the reserved coldness of Ben as they waited for their ‘job’ to begin.
Pinter’s play is one filled with mysterious hints at information but an ever-present lack of clarity or ultimate satisfaction. Scraps of information are given to the audience which help them on their way to filling in the blanks provided. Even the men’s profession is unknown until the end – I considered waiters (dumb ones… obviously) and male escorts as possibilities (both ended up being incorrect) – and even this is never truly confirmed. However, throughout there is the sense that Ben is rather more aware than his partner. Radcliffe-Adams built Ben’s growing frustration with Gus through the mounting intensity of his reactions to questions, comments, or remarks. Fists were clenched, jaws locked, and tone hardened as he attempted to negotiate Gus’ inquiries. Often, you felt that whatever Gus was commenting on was ringing true because of the potency of Ben’s reaction.
These reactions were but one element of the power dynamic set up between the two. Radcliffe-Adams, tall and dark, towered over Calcutt in a physical display of superiority and condescension; there could be no doubt about who was in charge between the two of them. Gus asks the questions, which only Ben is there to answer, and his positioning on the bed for much of the play meant that Gus seemed to orbit him as he went around the stage. It is only when the dumbwaiter enters the ‘action’ (I say this with some trepidation, as action is a slightly strong word for a play which uses most of its dialogue to discuss tea making) that we begin to see the cracks in Ben’s façade. His stock responses grow entirely meaningless, and his placation of Gus becomes almost performative.
The dumbwaiter is a character in and of itself in the play. In this production it stood at the back of the stage, between the men’s beds, constantly pervading the scene. With every incomprehensible message that was sent down, Ben’s irritation, and Gus’ confusion, increased to boiling point. It is testament to both leads’ acting, and the directorial efforts of Alex Foster and Alex Hopkins-McQuillan that the tension between understanding and confusion was maintain throughout. If the balance had been slightly off it would have been a long hour. There was a subtlety to both the acting and staging that prevented the play from slipping into farce or unintelligibility.
A² Productions’ performance of The Dumb Waiter was a true display of the human response to uncertainty, pressure, and fear. I left thinking, ‘wow…wait what just happened?’, which, by all accounts (after much wiki research) is exactly what I should have been thinking.