‘Home sweet home’, ‘home is where the heart is’, ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. Home is a place we all like to be; on a cold winter’s day we can’t wait to get in or if we’re abroad for a protracted period of time we long to return. It’s a place of solace, safety, often of family and respite, territorially ours, come what may. In The Homecoming now revived by Jamie Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios, Pinter plays with these notions of home and family showing us that our origins can be as poisonous as they are restorative, a place where you return not just to the home you once knew but also to yourself and the person you’ve been trying to escape from.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Homecoming so this production celebrates Pinter’s acclaimed play with a star-studded interpretation. And having started the year with the deliciously dark The Ruling Class – with a serenely madcap performance from James McAvoy – Jamie Lloyd productions neatly book-end my theatrical year. But Pinter and I have never really gotten along; I enjoyed Betrayal but couldn’t quite get to grips with No Man’s Land, there’s something about the rhythm of Pinter, with its surreal plot twists and grubby interplay, which just didn’t quite fit with me. Never one to give up entirely, I’m glad I gave this a go – I may not be exactly converted but this is a chilling, sinister and intense production that is a fine birthday tribute to a landmark play.
Teddy returns to his London home with his wife Ruth. Married for 6 years but living in America as a university lecturer, Teddy’s family has never met his wife or even knows of her existence until one night when everyone has gone to bed they turn up unannounced on the doorstep for a flying visit. But this is no ordinary family – Max the patriarch still attempting to rule his home with an iron fist, flits between missing his long-dead wife and despising her; Lenny the middle son is a man of the world, a wheeler dealer with less than savoury connections; Joey is the youngest, a boxer who Max thinks will make it big, and Sam (Max’s brother) is the only one with a defined job as a well-respected and much requested chauffeur. The entrance of Ruth into this utterly male world both unpicks the existing dynamics and fills a void over the course of two days. But Teddy’s neat and elegant wife isn’t all she seems, Ruth has come home too.
As with all of Soutra Gilmore’s work the first thing you’ll notice about this play is the design – with the houselights up it’s a black, sparse but elegant looking 60s home with sideboard and chair. In the centre is the throne, Max’s armchair which denotes his status in the house – 2 seats in the whole room. It all looks stylishly 60s, containing the characters in a red-framed room that recedes back to the pivotal front door. But then the stage lights come on and suddenly it looks much grubbier, well used and soiled – a reflection of the family morality within. It’s a very unsettling male world that contrasts brilliantly with Ruth and Teddy’s American preppy style, lit in crucial moments in blood red or by two naked light bulbs suspended at front and rear like a boxing ring.
It’s a small cast and Pinter gives each a chance to shine. Best among them is Ron Cook as Max (also a veteran of The Ruling Class earlier this year) the curmudgeonly father of the house who is both proud of and appears to detest his sons. An old school working-class man, butcher by trade, who constantly reminisces about the old days while laying down the law to his household. Cook’s performance is spot on, unsympathetic and unwilling. Matching him is John Simm as Lennie giving the creepiest performance of the show. By coincidence the programme notes tell us that when The Homecoming was released, audiences could have alternatively seen Turgenev’s A Month in the Country and Simm has just finished a superb run in that self-same play at the National this summer. Also a veteran of Lloyd productions (The Hothouse), Simm is magnificent here as the outwardly friendly but deadly middle brother. With an accent that verges on a working class Kenneth Williams at his most snide, Simm is a sinister figure often appearing unexpectedly and using a chatty manner to imply considerable threat – creepy and brilliant.
Given that the world Pinter creates here is one that existed alongside the Krays, appropriately Gary Kemp has been cast, successfully against type, as the philosophical brother Teddy and he brings a softness and detachment to the role which seems right for Teddy’s separateness from his family. Also offering a surprising turn is Keith Allen as Uncle Sam, who takes considerable pride in his legitimate job, often absenting himself from family quarrels, especially when Max and Lennie butt heads. Allen brings a restrained camp to his performance of Sam, who seems to perform most of the domestic chores, which gives the audience plenty to consider in this very male world.
The role of Ruth, then, is a tricky one as the only woman to have entered this home since the death of Max’s wife. Gemma Chan pitches her really well, initially fearful and detached implying the very different life she and Teddy have led in their middle-class American home, but as the play progresses she begins to stand up to them and ultimately it seems to dominate their thoughts and plans. The hints at Ruth’s past come across well in a knowing performance from Chan, and you’re left with the notion that whatever the family has cooked up, she’s been the one in control all along.
While I can’t say that I’ve come any closer to loving Pinter, the production values made this a fascinating and very worthwhile trip to the theatre – especially the design and direction that is bursting with meaning and the almost gleeful darkness of the performances with Simm in particular seeming to relish his character’s dangerous geniality. So wherever you end up and whoever you think you become, perhaps you can’t ever escape who you really are, eventually all of us have to come home.
The Homecoming is at the Trafalgar Studios until 13 February. Tickets start at £29.50 but Trafalgar Studios runs as £15 Monday initiative on the 2nd – so on 2nd December they will release tickets at £15 for all Mondays in December. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1