By Mark Pajak
To make any reviewer shudder put the words ‘Fringe’ and ‘Theatre’ together. You see when theatre-makers answer to no one, limited only by budget, the results can be unsubtle. Imagine sitting through a three hour monologue about the meaning of life set to elaborate xylophone music, or King Lear done completely through mime; and so, when I find myself watching a stage in the upstairs or cellar of a pub, the question “what’s the point of fringe theatre?” aches in my head. However, sometimes I’ll see a performance and that ache will ease. Sometimes even, once in a great while, make it stop.
The Dumb Waiter is possibly the best of Pinter’s early plays. It’s the first time he uses the full composition of the ‘Pinter-formula’ with its working-class characters hemmed into a small space, the background information scarce and atmosphere threatening. As the audience is lead down into the catacomb-like performance space under The Kings Arms, Salford, it’s obvious that Ransack Theatre has got it right.
The room is tight and can fit little more than the sixteen audience members and the play’s two characters, Ben (Alastair Michael) and Gus (James Warburton). The two lounge on separate beds, the close-proximity allowing even this sedate repose to loom over the audience as they take their seats. The space is simple, the walls like blank pages except for a photo, small clusters of the unsettling tally marks and the hatch for the dumb waiter itself.
As the play begins unhurriedly, like a usual Pinter play, its sound that becomes all important. The crackle of a crisp packet, rustle of newspaper, someone going to the toilet, all emanate and echo from in front and behind – making a noose of sound that draws the audience into the centre as these two hit men wait for their deadly orders.
Michael and Warburton show all the tell-tale chemistry of actors who have previously worked together. Their lines thread naturally, the slightest change of expression in one provokes just as slight a response in the other (an invaluable trait to have when your audience are only inches away). But where it really counts is in the humour. Despite the dark subject matter and moments of menace, The Dumb Waiter is a play full of moments that will have you giggling and timing is something both these actors have in bucket loads.
However, once the play has ended, it’s a chill that lingers as you come back up into the warm pub. This devilish effect comes in the detail; the brilliant choice of location, the simple yet deft positioning of sound and even something as minute as the strange tally marks scratched into the walls. Experimentation is, after all, the point of Fringe theatre but as this performance of The Dumb Waiter proves, the point is also for these experiments to bear fruit.
This is a must see for both devote lovers of fringe and, like me, anybody who needs their faith restored. It’s a show that will make your spine tingle, rather than your head ache.
Mark Pajak is studying on the Creative Writing MA with the Manchester Writing School at MMU. He has been published with Magma, Ink Sweat & Tears and Smoke Magazine among others. Follow him on Twitter here.