The Homecoming - Comedy Theatre 1990

Programme Cover

The Homecoming, Comedy Theatre, London, January 1990

Max - Warren Mitchell
Lenny - Nicholas Woodeson
Sam - John Normington
Joey - Douglas McFerran
Teddy - Greg Hicks
Ruth - Cherie Lungh

Directed by Peter Hall
Sets, Costumes, Lighting - John Bury

A Pinter classic revisited
by Benedict Nightingale

Twenty-five years have passed since Harold Pinterís Homecoming had its premiere in Cardiff. I know because I was there, and well remembered scribbling a quick-fire review in a hotel lounge crammed with theatregoers either spluttering, expostulating or too stricken to do much but silently mouth. That did not make life calmer for a cub critic struggling to make instant sense of one of the centuryís strangest, most fascinating plays. But South Walesís outrage is worth recalling, now that academia has institutionalised The Homecoming as that deathly thing, a modern classic.
Thus the task facing Peter Hall, now as then the playís director, is almost more challenging than in 1965. He must switch the electricity back on, and jolt a modern audience into recognising how shocking the play still is. It should not just be an opportunity for the cognoscenti to appreciate charged dialogue, pregnant subtext and other Pinterisms. It is the story of an academic who brings his wife from America to London, only to see her sexually hijacked by his father and brothers and, with her consent, turned into a blend of housekeeper and breadwinner, surrogate mother and professional whore.
Hall undeniably passes the test. True, there are plenty of loaded silences; but there is no doubting the intensity of the emotions embodied in them. What this family is camouflaging, and not always bothering to camouflage, are lust, greed, envy, fear and anger. If the production did not also manage to be gruesomely funny, it would be intolerable. London, let alone Cardiff, should beware.

Warren Mitchell, Greg Hicks, Cherie Lunghi, Douglas McFerran and Nicholas Woodeson

The family living room, as in 1965 designed by John Bury, consists of drab grey walls and dull brown furniture. Even the lampshade might have been rescued from the ashes of Hiroshima. And then the rancorous exchanges begin. In Warren Mitchellís performance, the paterfamilias Max half-limps, half-scuttles onstage, a boy gnome with sly, squinting eyes and a malevolent grin. Before long, he is barking out resentments that embrace his own increasing age and fading virility, his dead wife, his conventional brother, and his young sons.
One of these is the pimp Lenny, in Nicholas Woodesonís performance a sly, mocking predator, and the other the aspiring boxer Joey, played by Douglas McFerran as a simpleton most articulate when he is staring at his father with helpless hatred or at his sister-in-law with forlorn yearning. This is the all-male household to which the eldest brother, Teddy, ends by presenting his compliant wife, Ruth.
Here is the playís central problem. Why does this classy couple behave so weirdly? In the first production, Vivien Merchantís Ruth exuded slinky sexuality and nostalgie de la boue. Cherie Lunghi, her pale, drawn successor, prefers to emphasise the strain of being a good wife and mother on an arid American campus, and the relief of being somewhere where she can exercise emotional power, not play games of intellectual letís-pretend. Given her determination, itís not surprising that Greg Hickís Teddy, always insecure behind the professorial suavity, finds relief in surrender.
So why does the play maintain its hold? Surely because it utterly demystifies the family. God knows what formative brutalities have happened in the past; but what is left here is a herd of human animals, loveless yet frighteningly close, whose joint needs override those of any one member. Who but Pinter could bring such zoological dispassion to the recording of its internal battles for dominance and sex, its power to absorb, overwhelm and destroy
The Times, 11th January 1991

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