mon 26/02/2024

The Homecoming, Young Vic Theatre review - Pinter's disturbing masterpiece is given a low-key revival | reviews, news & interviews

The Homecoming, Young Vic Theatre review - Pinter's disturbing masterpiece is given a low-key revival

The Homecoming, Young Vic Theatre review - Pinter's disturbing masterpiece is given a low-key revival

Unsettling investigation of patriarchal family and sexual relationships has uneven force

Sam (Nicolas Tennant), Max (Jared Harris), Teddy (Robert Emms) and Joey (David Angland)Images - Manuel Harlan

As the audience enters, thick mist envelopes the thrust stage and jazz music fills the theatre. The set, designed by Moi Tran, consists of a sparsely furnished but spacious room, backed by a staircase. It is a place in the past but also anywhere and any time, both naturalistic and imaginary.

The outline of this work – shocking when first seen in 1965 but soon recognised as a gripping, enigmatic examination of the power struggle between the sexes – is by now familiar. Teddy, Max's eldest son, has brought Ruth, his wife of six years, to meet his father and brothers, Lenny who is a pimp, and Joey a would-be boxer. These share the north London family home with Max's brother Sam, a chauffeur. Teddy and Ruth have been living in America where he is an academic, and have three sons of their own. By the end of the play, Ruth has opted to stay with her in-laws.

Lisa Diveney and Joe Cole in The HomecomingUnder Matthew Dunster's direction some of the ambiguity is removed and Ruth's decision is less shocking than it might be. From the off, Ruth (Lisa Diveney, pictured left with Joe Cole as Lenny) is a sexy young woman, openly aware of her attractions, dressed in a mini skirt and shiny black boots. Later she appears in skimpy black nightwear and, after lunch, in a slinky gown split to reveal one leg. There is scant sign of superficial gentility later dispensed with to show a hidden side of her personality; the effect is more that she is biding her time. The duality usually found in Pinter's female characters of this period – the mother and the whore – is there but the two sides are unequal.

Other elements of the family story, hinted at in the script, are made more explicit. Max's dead wife, Jessie, spoken of with reverence as a maternal figure, was clearly often absent, leaving Max to provide bath times and cuddles and perhaps brutal punishment. Here, when he raises his stick to the adult Lenny the sarcastic response, begging for mercy, becomes an explicit throwback to terrified childhood with the help of Sally Ferguson's lighting. Sam (played with faded dignity by Nicolas Tennant), who has a more nuanced memory of Jessie, all-but tells Teddy that his father was probably Max's friend MacGregor.

To begin with, Jared Harris's Max is not so much angered by his failing powers as already a spent force. By the end he is utterly pathetic, claiming not to be too old to enjoy Ruth, removing his jacket and performing a risible hopping dance before collapsing on the floor. Lenny swaggers but, despite his tales of beating up women – presumably a veiled threat in his sexual power struggle with Ruth – he is never her equal, notably in the notorious tussle over who can make whom drink from a glass of water.

In the first Act, the male fantasists circle but the tensions seem mainly low-key and then, when a moment of violence comes, it goes for little. Max attacks Joey (David Angland) when he doesn't move to eject Teddy and Ruth, whom he immediately assumes to be a prostitute. Max buckles and hits Sam with his stick – all of which should surely be both shocking and funny, but it hardly registers at all here.

Lisa Diveney and Robert Emms in The HomecomingThe mood changes in the second Act. Teddy (Robert Emms, pictured right with Lisa Diveney), clearly a fish out of water, has no further role in this family. In fact, having previously claimed that Ruth is a great help to him, he now includes her with his father and brothers in his dismissal of them as incapable of understanding his work. The others become animated, full of energy and purpose, as they discuss setting Ruth up "on the game". She is relaxed, in charge, helping herself to fags and whisky, negotiating favourable terms for her new life, but still not signing any contract. Max may well be right that she will "do the dirty" on them, but she also assumes the required motherly attitude, stroking Joey's hair. 

In this reading, it is Ruth who has come home, dispensing with the thin veil of respectability, which she found tedious. This is where she belongs. For Teddy – whom she addresses as Eddie, somehow assuming superiority by doing so – it's clear she represents a failed experiment; she has not become the wife he thought he'd created. And so, the second Act goes some way to compensate for the slow-burning first.

@heathermneill

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