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The Homecoming by Harold Pinter

The Homecoming by Harold Pinter – directed by Jamie Lloyd 

Harold Pinter’s darkly savage drama The Homecoming first hit the London stage in 1965.

50 years on, this unsettling, savagely funny play still has the power to shock and unnerve.

Director Jamie Lloyd’s adaptations of Pinter have been the best I’ve seen – his frenetic directing giving a surreal fast-cut feel to the action while always ensuring Pinter’s words remain the icy heart of the play.

The play opens in total blackness. Suddenly, the stage flares into life with pounding music. Aggressive neon lights outline the edge of the house. A single light bulb dangles from the ceiling. The door bursts open and in strides Lenny (John Simm), the wiry, fast moving middle son of the family. He sits down, shakes open his newspaper and lights a cigarette. The impression is of a  1980s video but the year is 1965 and the place is South London.

The door opens again and in strides macho Max (Ron Cook), the bullying father. He purposefully sits in his chair – the one that nobody else must touch – shakes open his newspaper and lights a cigarette. Father and son begin to talk in short, aggressive bursts.

This warring family of four men live out their days verbally and physically sparring with each other. Max spits out venom at his camp brother Sam (Keith Allen) but Sam uses his knowledge of Max’s wife to wound back in turn. Max turns red and spits, losing control – he is a  bully whose power to hurt is on the wane.

Into this fractured, angry household arrive Gus (Martin Kemp), the eldest son and his wife, Ruth (Gemma Chan).

The cast each inhabit their roles with precise perfection. Flashes of the inner turmoil suffered by each of the characters appear when they think they are alone. Ruth staggers around outside the house, unable to breathe. Lenny tries to smash a clock. Joe repeatedly lashes out at his own reflection in a mirror.

As always with Pinter, the truth lies shimmering somewhere under the surface of the words. It’s left to the audience to insert their own back-stories into the heavy pauses and elliptical exchanges. Max certainly physically abused his sons when they were weaker than him and there are possible hints of past sexual abuse. Now it’s only his brother Sam and Joe the youngest son, the slow-witted boxer, who are on the receiving end of his walking stick.

In the end, it’s Ruth’s homecoming. It becomes gradually apparent that she does not share her husband’s love of US campus life – she feels trapped over there in her role as dutiful wife and stay-at-home mother.  So, she swops one family of males for another, choosing to stay with her husband’s family in London. Pinter makes no judgement on this decision – he only makes it clear that this choice is Ruth’s alone.

The play closes on a final, haunting image of Ruth. She has physically unseated Max – now she is the one sitting in the chair, surrounded by her new family, staring out impassively into the audience. The balance of power is shifting and it’s left to the audience to decide who emerges victorious.