There are many things about the world today that make me think some higher being is having a laugh at our expense. Top of that list is the fact that Danny Dyer – the man who referred to aliens as “that mob up there” and the 9/11 hijackers as “them slags” – was a personal friend and protege of Harold Pinter, our greatest modern playwright.
He was first cast by the man himself as the waiter in 1999’s Celebration, later following the play to New York, where he admitted smoking crack the night before a performance. This didn’t stop Pinter from casting him in No Man’s Land at the National Theatre and his final play, The Homecoming, in 2008.
Dyer makes a glorious return to Pinter’s oeuvre in one of the playwright’s earliest works, 1957’s The Dumb Waiter. It forms a formidable double bill alongside the equally superlative A Slight Ache (1958), with the evening a worthy swansong for director Jamie Lloyd’s season of the playwright’s short works, which has encompassed 29 one-act plays, sketches and recitals over seven performances.
Dyer stars opposite Martin Freeman as a bumbling hitman laying low in a dingy basement awaiting details of his next job. There are echoes of In Bruges to the proceedings, the pair nervously passing the time arguing about cups of tea and the contents of the tabloid papers. Dyer’s Ben is horrified by a story about a young girl who killed her pet cat, but calmly rehearses the specifics of their next hit, while the more squeamish Gus hopes it’s not another woman, who he says “make more of a mess”.
Their evening is interrupted when a dumb waiter starts delivering a string of food orders. Unable to supply the requested soup of the day or liver and onions, the hitmen scrape together a squashed eccles cake and a bag of crisps, wringing their hands at being unable to complete their task. Freeman shows remarkable restraint as the timid Gus, handing the biggest laughs to Dyer, who shows a real flair for physical acting, contorting his burly frame as he skittishly points his gun at the series of folded notes.
If The Dumb Waiter lampoons a certain kind of working class man who will do anything to please his superiors, the other half of the double bill, A Slight Ache, concerns itself with the opposite: the way the middle classes mask their fear of working men by obsessing over life’s silly details; the Latin names of plants, time paradoxes, the intricacies of the Belgian Congo.
Written as a radio play, it’s ingeniously staged in a retro recording studio, the two characters, a husband and wife, creating the diegetic sounds by pouring glasses of water or stomping on the spot in a tray of gravel.
The inane conversation between the two, delivered in cut-glass Queen’s English, are a hilarious send-up of middle class pretensions, but things take a turn for the sinister when a matchstick salesman sets up his stall outside their gate. Who is this mysterious fellow? What can he possibly want? They invite him in, coaxing the silent “bullock of a man” to remove his balaclava. He reminds the wife of a man who once raped her, while his taciturnity drives the household patriarch to distraction.
The hilarity of the first half is counterbalanced by an ending as dark as any of Pinter’s twisted fantasies. It’s a faultless piece of writing delivered impeccably, a fabulous way to bid farewell to this incredible series.