The Theatreguide.London Review
Comedy Theatre Autumn 2001
Harold Pinter's 1965 drama, like many of his plays, uses what seems at first bizarre behaviour to make us face some very human realities.
It's set in an all-male London family, where aging father Max rules while slimy gangster son Lenny bides his time, dumb second son Joey is oblivious, and Max's brother Sam broods.
A third son, Teddy, returns home suddenly from America with his wife Ruth; and after some fascinating interplay, she decides to stay on to service the whole family while earning her keep as a prostitute.
The original production (captured in the 1973 film) was a study in the way ordinary conversations can have life-or-death undertones.
In the three key roles, Paul Rogers played Max as an alpha lion, aging but still very much the king, while Ian Holm as Lenny jabbed at him but always retreated before going too far, and Vivien Merchant made Ruth an enigmatic essence-of-the-female, able to take over the alpha position just because she had what everyone else wanted.
Now that Ian Holm has aged into the role of Max, he and director Robin Lefevre have found some new resonances. Holm's Max has lost his dominance even before the play began, and the actor beautifully presents a picture of weary sadness and wary fear.
But for some reason Lenny (a not very strong performance by Ian Hart) hasn't seized the throne, and so there is a power vacuum in the first half of the play that is in its own way as unsettling as the going-for-blood of the original production.
Following the lead of some earlier revivals, Lia Williams plays Ruth far more naturalistically than Vivien Merchant did.
She gives her a very clear back story (fully supported by the text) as a former whore deeply unhappy in her middle class American life and eager to get back to the life she enjoyed. So she does not so much take control of the men as grab the opportunity to get what she wants through them.
There are some losses to these reinterpretations. Anyone who saw the original or the film remembers the incredibly tense mutual testing and jabbing of the first encounters of Lenny and Teddy and then of Lenny and Ruth, or the raw power of Paul Rogers' Max, and all that is gone.
Indeed, the whole current production is somewhat low in energy and intensity, and occasionally poorly paced. But both Ian Holm and Lia Williams give sensitive performances, the one as someone aware that the best of his life is over, the other discovering the opportunity for a new life.
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