Harold Pinter’s play The Homecoming begins with a verbal sparring match between a father and son.
In Trafalgar Studios’ revival, Ron Cook plays the red-faced patriarch, dictating and abusing by turns from the comfort of his armchair; and John Simm plays Lenny the son, who gives as good as he gets and then some. Doctor Who fans will recognise shades of his mesmerising turn as The Master.
Gary Kemp (yes, previously of Spandau Ballet fame) is the eldest son – the educated one – who lives in America and turns up unannounced after six years’ absence with nervous wife in tow. “They’re family, not ogres,” he reassures her, unreassuringly.
Unlike this family of men, Gemma Chan’s wife is unnervingly still and dispassionate. (So much so that you can’t help wondering if the director cast her after watching her play a robot in Channel 4’s Humans.)
Gary Kemp, Ron Wood and Gemma Chan in The Homecoming
Rounding off the cast is Keith Allen, playing against type as the camp chauffeur uncle and John MacMillan as the third son, a brooding boxer.
A bit of background: The Homecoming has been perplexing critics and theatre-goers for 50 years. Jamie Lloyd’s production doesn’t answer any questions but plays on the gangster theme. (It was written at a time when Reggie and Ronnie Kray were gaining notoriety in the East End, and the rival Richardson gang were terrorising south London.)
Pinter is famous for silences leaden with subtext but Lloyd’s revival is more akin to a boxing match. Sinister sound and lighting effects ratchet up the tension and all the action takes place in a living room with a blood-red carpet – the father likes it just so, Lenny explains.
Like all Pinter’s plays, it’s also bleakly funny, although at times you may cringe at the 60s humour. Indeed, the casual misogyny is even more shocking to a modern audience.
The second half is especially uncomfortable as – having taken a shine to Ruth – an unsavoury plan is concocted to make her part of the family. It soon becomes clear that her passivity is only an act and she’s more than a match for her rutting in-laws.
Don’t expect a happy ending. Do expect to be deeply unsettled by brilliant performances and a play that’s as disturbing as ever.
The Homecoming is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 13th February 2015