“Got anything planned for this afternoon?” asked the bright young podiatrist earlier, as she committed acts of creamy lubrication to my battered old tootsies. “I’m going to write about a play we saw over Christmas” I replied. “Which play?” “A 1965 play by Harold Pinter called The Homecoming.” “What’s it about?” “Well…” I paused. “It’s about a father, and his three sons, two of them live with him, and the third one, he comes back to see them – that’s the homecoming of the title – and he brings his new wife with him.” I paused again. “And then the whole family uses her. For, erm, sexual purposes.” I felt the podiatrist just lose a slight grip of my foot. “That’s… odd,” she said warily. “Yes,” I replied. “What’s odder is that the wife seems perfectly happy about the arrangement.” She put my foot down and looked me in the eye. “That is odd”. “I believe it’s meant to be symbolic of something,” I lamely added; “symbolic of what, though, I haven’t quite worked out yet.”
There’s no denying it, this is a very odd play. Back when I was fifteen I took it on myself to read all of Pinter’s plays that he had written to date – that took me up to No Man’s Land. I found his landscape of veiled threats, black comedy, wretched lives and hidden pasts weirdly stimulating and captivating. But none of his plays surprised or intrigued me more than The Homecoming. A man brings his wife back to meet his family and before long they’re planning how they’re going to make money out of her by setting her up in Greek Street, and how they’re going to pass her round the family as though she were a blow-up doll. Meanwhile she doesn’t move a muscle to dissuade them from this new arrangement, and her husband goes back to their sons by himself with little apparent sense of rejection – indeed, it’s he who suggests that she will have to “pull her weight financially” if she stays.
Why? Why would this be a natural conclusion to the story for any of the characters involved? OK, it’s an all-male household, and no doubt since the wife/mother Jessie passed away there hadn’t been much of an outlet for some “male needs” to be attended to (although thinking in terms of mother/son relationships, that’s a bit yukky). You can try to attribute all sorts of motivations and meanings to the play; maybe Teddy is bringing back his wife as some fertility sacrifice for the Greater Good of the Family. Alternatively, maybe she’s just a slag. Mrs Chrisparkle thinks Ruth is mentally ill, which, if true, creates a whole new scenario of abusive relationships to consider. No matter which way you look at this play, its outcome inhabits a completely alien morality.
The production – which works extremely well, I hasten to add – is full of portentous light and sound effects which really add to a sense of stylised drama and crisis. This encourages the audience, I think, to look for meaning and significance where, perhaps, there really is none. Pinter’s stage directions, whilst by no means sparse, don’t give any indication of symbolism or other meanings. Things simply are what they are. You may choose to invest this play with meanings; the missing back wall might represent the missing female influence; the “homecoming” might be Ruth’s “coming home to herself”. But I think this is a play you can overcomplicate. Maybe it is just a glimpse into the machinations of one slightly weird family. If you think that renders the play banal, perhaps its strength is actually its ability to recognise its own banality. Having said all that – see the postscript below for another possibility.
A mark of a good Pinter production is how they handle the pauses. If the pauses feel unnatural, or as though someone’s forgotten their lines, they’re not doing it right. If the pauses feel natural, or even better, if you don’t notice them at all, then they’ve got it spot on. Interestingly, given that Jamie Lloyd has directed this production within a very stylised framework (lights, bangs, a vivid red frame surrounding the set) the conversations flow perfectly. Certainly the very naturalistic performances make an intriguing contrast with the otherwise artificial presentation, which leaves you, the audience member, feeling unnerved and ill at ease.
Max, the patriarch of the family, is played by Ron Cook and it’s a role he was born to play. Max is the archetypal “nasty little man”, full of sarcasm, self-pity, and bullying aggression, and Mr Cook conveys those characteristics with deadly credibility. There are a couple of passages where the text suggests that Max might have been, shall we say, “over-friendly” with his sons on bath nights or when “tucking them up” in bed, and that lingering sense of misdemeanour hangs horribly successfully in the atmosphere. I loved – if that’s the right word – his changes of vocal tone from gruff antagonist to wheedling beggar. It’s a fantastic performance.
Also superb, and notable for his vocal performance, is John Simm as Lenny. We saw Mr Simm in another Pinter play, Betrayal, in Sheffield a few years ago and he is one actor who you feel really understands what the writer is getting at. Mr Simm plays Lenny as rather superior, rather cunning and definitely self-centred (a chip off the old block one might say) and gives him a slightly whiny, spivvy voice; he reminded me of a cat, playfully teasing his mouse, letting it get so far, whilst at any minute he might unleash a lethal swipe. He’s a control freak; and when he loses control – as in some of his dealings with Ruth – Mr Simm really makes you feel his discomfort.
Gary Kemp – whose programme biog completely omits any reference to Spandau Ballet, which is weird, I’d be very proud if I’d written those songs – feels nicely out of place as the returning son Teddy, reassuring himself with the surroundings of the family home, having (allegedly) gone to America some time ago to become a Professor of Philosophy. He’s a fish out of water both in terms of his old family and his wife, as there seems to be no closeness between them. He comes across as a man full of worries, which, given the circumstances, seems quite appropriate; and when he leaves at the end, it’s as though he knew this would be the outcome all along. In a role where the audience is looking for some kind of recognisable normality and comfort, he refuses to give it; which emphasises the overall sense of unease. Nice work.
For the performance we saw, the role of Sam was taken by his understudy, Geoffrey Towers, and he was extremely good. Perhaps the one character in the play with any sense of decency, you could just feel that he hated every moment of living in that household, with his belligerent brother constantly impugning his masculinity. John Macmillan plays Joey, the youngest brother, the one for whom the family wit and intelligence ran out before he was born. Demolition by day, boxer by night, his punch-drunk accent strayed slightly into caricature I felt; but maybe that was the idea.
But it’s Gemma Chan’s characterisation of Ruth that is the star of the show. Initially ill at ease, once she comes back from her “breath of air”, and she meets Lenny, she’s completely in command; gently manipulative, precise in her actions, clear in her language but oh so ambiguous in her meaning. After Lenny has challenged Teddy to explain what a table is, philosophically speaking, there’s a wonderful scene where Ruth intimates her own brand of personal philosophy. When she talks of moving her leg, it’s just a movement; but her underwear moves with it, so it might have greater significance. She moves her leg to demonstrate. It’s a simple action, but so sexually charged that you could hear the legendary pin drop. It’s a beautifully controlled, expressive and stunning performance.
An engrossing and enjoyable night at the theatre – but it’s still a very odd play.
P.S. Ruth’s leg movement might also be Pinter’s way of telling you that you can view this play simply on face value or with a greater significance – and both might be correct. Or not. What do you think?
Production photos by Marc Brenner