The Dumb Waiter, Ransack Theatre, The King’s Arms, Salford, 6th-15th November 2014
As soon as the ticket collector led us down a narrow staircase and into a candlelit cellar, there was a sense that this adaptation of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (1959) might just be a little bit special. Waiting for us in a tiny room were two actors. One under the covers of a grimy bed, the other, cross-legged on top of his own with a copy of The Metro clasped in his fingers. Noticing their presence, the audience’s nervous chatter dropped to a whisper, then to the clatter of glasses, and finally, nothing but a not entirely comfortable silence. There was a strange sort of tension in the air.
Why weren’t the actors moving or speaking? Was something wrong? Had we come in too early? Just as the compact crowd started to glance furtively around this dimly lit cellar, wondering if maybe somebody had forgotten their cue, or if a further character was late to the scene, Gus (James Warbuton) slowly stretched and reached for a large leather bag that was hidden under his bed. He was looking for something. The audience waited with baited breath and then watched as he took out a single cheese and onion crisp and put it in his mouth, trying his best to hide his contraband from the man in the other bed. Ben (Alistair Michael) looked over. But still no words were spoken.
It was perhaps ten minutes before the opening line was uttered, but in those minutes Warbuton and Michael made silence into an art form. The meaningful but not exaggerated facial expressions. The comedic but not overdone sounds of Gus using the bathroom. The stepping around each other and the shaking of heads. And the establishment of the play’s central relationship – Ben as boss, Gus as his friend, but mostly his underling. All of that is made clear without a single line of dialogue, and that’s pretty damn impressive.
What follows is an hour of theatre that walks the line between humour and tension with ease. As we slowly pick up hints as to why these two suited men are waiting in a basement, each with a gun under their pillow, a sense of dread almost pulses through the room. But this is offset wonderfully by the hilarious innocence and enthusiasm of Gus, a man who cannot stop speaking once the silence is broken. His questions about football, food, and the state of the basement’s kitchen, all paint a picture of a sweet but naïve character that doesn’t quite understand why he is in that particular room on that particular day. The audience, though, has started to suspect something is awry.
These suspicions increase when Ben turns nasty. Previously amenable if slightly impatient, a slight misstep by Gus leads to a sudden burst of anger from Ben. This increases the tension further and sets a precedent for the second half of the play. Each time we’ve been lulled into enjoying the back and forth between the two characters, something happens that once again makes us dread the ending. And in the final ten minutes all sense of hilarity is gone, and both actors do a fantastic job of switching from funny to emotionally fraught.
Ransack Theatre originally brought The Dumb Waiter to The King’s Arms in July. It picked up the prize of ‘Best Revival’ at the GMF Awards and returned to Salford due to popular demand. It’s easy to see why. There can’t be many locations better suited to this two-person set-piece than the pub’s tiny cellar with its rough walls and creaking doors. But it is the performances of Warburton and Michael that make this something more than just an enjoyable hour of theatre. In such a tiny venue, with room for only ten or so bodies in the crowd, there would be nowhere to hide if any mistakes were made. So it’s a good job these two don’t make any. Warburton probably steals the show, but that’s only really because Gus is such an endearing character. Michael is every bit as convincing, and in the emotional scenes he really comes to the fore. Not that the two of them should be compared and contrasted. As a double act, they’re superb.
The show will run until the 15th of November. It’d be worth the entrance fee just for the experience of the venue. Add to that an exciting, amusing, emotional, and original adaptation of the play, and there isn’t really any reason not to go. For a night sitting on a small stool in a damp pub cellar, it far exceeds any expectations.