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The Homecoming at the Young Vic - a Review by Mike Aina
Matthew Dunster’s revival of Harold Pinter’s dark comedic study of misogyny and toxic masculinity in the 60’s is sadly another example of the dire need to support new writing that is reflective of and meaningful to today’s society.
I made my way to the Young Vic feeling very excited as usual to see acting talent on the stage. I did not know much about the play nor what I was about to walk into prior to viewing - only that the imminent arrival of a Lady, Ruth, played by Lisa Diveney, was about to ruffle a few feathers.
As we made our way into the theatre, we were suddenly hit by mist from the smoke machine, to highlight the habit of excessive smoking at the time in history - a beautiful touch from the designer, Moi Tran, through which we are instantly brought into the world of the characters before the show had even begun. The smoke slowly fades away and the lights dim down, revealing a simple set: a living room with minimal furniture and a staircase at the back. The entire play is set in this living room, the perfect place for family bonding, but we are shown early on that this will not be the case for this dysfunctional family.
We are introduced to Lenny - a cocky, manipulative and menacing pimp, played by Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders, Gangs of London). Early on, you can feel the suspense in the theatre as he quietly reads his newspaper for a minute or two before his father, Max, the head of the family and a retired butcher played by Jared Harris (Chernobyl) hobbles onto the stage with his shirt unbuttoned and cane in hand, asking Lenny for scissors. Lenny keeps his eyes fixated on his newspaper when he asks again, but Lenny continues to ignore his father which infuriates him. Here the first power struggle begins. We bear witness to Lenny’s lack of respect for his father, who in turn also dishes out his own set of insults as they go back and forth. Max’s brother, Sam, a chauffeur played by Nicolas Tennant, enters and breaks the icy tension before Max also starts picking on him by questioning his manhood and sexuality, while they reminisce over old times. The sulky and easily manipulated youngest son, Joey, played by David Angland, then stumbles in from the gym. All four men spend the majority of the act one tearing each apart, like school kids in the playground. Initially this is comedic and enjoyable, but it remains on the same tempo for far too long and consequently becomes stale, making it difficult to connect with these characters at times despite the star-studded cast.
This is largely due to the lack of clarity in the story being told and, despite knowing their professions, we do not get to see who these characters really are and why they resent each other. It is only in hindsight that we realise that they are merely acting out due to the loss of Jessie, Max’s wife and the mother of the house. It is implied that she was the foundation of the family who kept everything together, had a personal bond with all the male relatives who are now lost without her, but if you are not focused it is too easy for this to go over your head.
The introduction of Ruth creates a sense of excitement once Ruth and Teddy, played by Robert Emms, walk into the living room. The lights turned to bright red upon their entry, implying that trouble was approaching. The stakes are further heightened by Ruth and Lenny while they flirt during their first interaction. Cole and Diveney did a good job in keeping us intrigued, we are almost scared for them as we know what they are doing is wrong but they make us enjoy it. This was probably my favourite part of the play, after which it falters back to the same tempo and lack of clarity in the second act.
The acting just about saved the show for me as I was not a huge fan of the writing. Cole and Harris were great as expected, but Tennant was the real star for me. I loved his approach to the role and his use of apples as a form of passive aggression. He constantly made me laugh, particularly when he boasted about his time wasting skills or his sudden outbursts whenever Max picked a fight with him. Diveney looked stunning in her costume and she had good moments during the show, such as her nervy introduction, the odd flirtatious encounters with Lenny and her blatant lack of love and respect for Teddy. Apart from these moments, I was not invested in her character. I also did not enjoy the fact that it was too easy for her to leave her children and stay back in London. This made me lose respect for and believability of the character.
Emms was as good as Teddy, however I was left wanting for more from Teddy - from his profession and status in society alone he should have been able to command more respect, but instead his loved ones walked all over him and disrespected his marriage. I wanted to see more from him but he just stood there and accepted it all, begging the question of if he ever really loved Ruth as I could not comprehend how he could just allow his family to keep his wife and turn her into a sex worker. Angland was okay; I did not care for his character at all and it wouldn’t have made a difference if he was there or not. I did not understand the purpose of this play, why it was brought to stage or what we were meant to take from this.
This Tony award-winning play is one of Pinter’s classics and we have to respect history - it’s the only way we can learn and grow - however I felt that Dunster’s naturalistic approach was lazy and there was no attempt whatsoever to make the play current and relatable to new audiences. One thing I did like about the play was that to me, it seemed to pay homage to motherhood as well as womanhood in a slightly twisted way. Despite the misogyny, sexism and perversions of these men, they clearly respect the role of women in their lives and show us how they cannot cope without them.
They are the “backbone of the family”, as Max said when he spoke about his late wife Jessie, and their absence can cause a home to fall apart and make grown men act like boys. With funding within the arts becoming scarce over the last few years, it would be good to see that funding being used to support new writing and giving promising projects the opportunity to be put on stage. Plays like The Homecoming are not running away and such stories have been told numerous times before. There are so many great new writers in the shadows waiting to be heard and seen, and it’s time that they come out into the light. Hopefully 2024 will be the start of that.
2.5 Moons Out Of 5 🌕🌕🌗
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