The Dumb Waiter and This Wide Night
Sutton Arts Theatre's latest offering, an evening of two one-act plays, provides more than a little food for thought if you have an appetite for dark comedy and challenging theatre.
Credit must go to Sutton Arts Theatre for such ambitious and bold programming: ‘The Dumb Waiter’ by Harold Pinter and ‘This Wide Night’ by Chloe Moss are exactly the kind of plays which should be gracing amateur theatre company stages up and down the land. Directed by Faye Hatch, both two-handers feature characters on the fringes of society and share a sense of loss and entrapment.
Harold Pinter, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, is widely recognised as one of the most influential and important modern British playwrights. His style, coined Pinteresque, is characterised by colloquial language, apparent triviality and long pauses. These are all evident in his 1957 play ‘The Dumb Waiter’, the ‘story’ of two hit-men waiting in a windowless basement room.
Pinter’s style does not suit everyone: he can divide audiences. ‘The Dumb Waiter’ subverts our expectations of what a play is and should be. As is so often the case in life, we can attempt to impose a linear structure on events in play worlds - a narrative, a plot which makes sense and characters whose backgrounds and motivations we understand. When these elements are absent the result is unsettling, disconcerting and confusing. If you’re able to embrace the lack of information Pinter provides and accept that things often simply don’t make sense, it makes for intriguing theatre.
The play takes its title from the name for a small lift intended to carry food, often connecting floors in restaurants. It is the only connection with the world beyond the grey box the characters are waiting in and is the source of much of the slightly absurd humour in the play. Dexter Whitehead and Christopher Commander both deliver excellent performances as Ben and Gus, the hit-men waiting for the imminent details of their next assignment.
Christopher Commander’s Gus, the junior partner, is intense and fastidious from the outset as he precisely readjusts his shoelaces during a lengthy opening sequence with no dialogue. He gives a sensitive, earnest performance and is full of questions for Dexter Whitehead’s apparently disinterested senior partner Ben.
As various power struggles play out between the pair and tensions rise, we slowly start to build some sense of their relationship. Time is almost suspended in a strange nether-world and what we are left with is the ambiguity and slipperiness of language. The actors sustain a claustrophobic and intense atmosphere throughout, punctuated by a range of brilliantly timed comic food orders (“soup of the day”, “scampi”) which arrive on slips of paper in the dumb waiter. The play’s conclusion (no spoilers here) is typical of Pinter’s unresolved endings and is guaranteed to generate more questions than it answers.
Whilst the second play of the evening is more conventional in terms of narrative structure, it is no less challenging and engaging. ‘This Wide Night’, a 2008 one-act play by Chloe Moss, tells the story of two women who have formed a bond in prison but on the ‘outside’, following release, their friendship is tested. In her research for the play, Moss ran workshops in Her Majesty’s Prison Cookham Wood. The voices of the women prisoners she met with shine through in naturalistic dialogue injected with real pathos by Joanne Ellis and Katie Johnson.
Marie (Katie Johnson) has been out of prison for some time. The action of the play unfolds in her tired bedsit over a week. On her release, Lorraine (Joanne Ellis) makes a beeline for Marie’s apartment and the stage is set for a reunion which explores the challenges of adjusting to life after a prison sentence. Katie Johnson is simultaneously caring, loving, reckless and unhinged in a moving performance as Marie. There’s a tender sadness in her desire to get her life back on track and we are rooting for her from the start. A poetic speech in which she opens up about a game she played as a child is delivered beautifully.
Joanne Ellis’ performance as lovable rogue Lorraine is larger than life but still manages to evoke a sadness underneath many of her comic observations. She is brash and coarse but an innate goodness simmers just under the surface of her often childlike innocence. The exchanges in which she speaks about reconnecting with her son are some of the most moving in the play.
‘This Wide Night’ is a play which both entertains and forces us to confront important questions about how we support, or fail to support, ex-prisoners. Darkly funny, truthful and tender.
An evening of professionally performed one-act plays not to be missed.
‘The Dumb Waiter’ and ‘This Wide Night’ are playing at Sutton Arts Theatre from 27th April to 6th May 2023.