6 OCTOBER 2001, Page 80


The Homecoming (Comedy) Afore Night Come (Young Vic) Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral (Lyric Hammersmith)

Vintage thugs

Sheridan Morley

Of all the plays of Harold Pinter, The Homecoming (now in a brilliant revival by Robin Lefevre for the Gate Theatre Dublin at the Comedy) is perhaps the most immediately accessible. An Ortonesque comedy about a grotesque north London family which preys together to stay together, and cheerfully sends its newest recruit out to try her luck on the streets of Soho — a fate to which she is by no means averse — it affords a sextet of wondrous parts, often considerably greater than the whole.

Menace and ambiguity, which any firstyear drama student will tell you are this playwright's patented stock-in-trade, hardly exist here at all: instead, The Homecoming is about the territorial imperative; who gets to sit in the biggest chair. This revival is dominated by Ian Holm as the grizzled Lear of a father, with Ian Hart as Lenny, the role once played by Pinter himself, a vintage, semi-literate thug ('apart from the known and the unknown, what else is there?').

Whether arranging for his sister-in-law (Lia Williams, in another of her ice-maiden roles) to take to the streets, or merely paying tribute to his own vicious parent ('I respect him not only as a father, but also as a first-class butcher'), Lenny and his dad are among the great blackly comic creations of the modern British theatre. These are Pinter's very own Krays, as familiar as any of the characters in Steven Berkoff but given a brilliantly Pinteresque twist, which is that they communicate in language more fitting to Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward. This was of course also Orton's best trick: the gap between language and reality, between what these butchers do for a living (essentially pimp and beat each other to pulp at the very least provocation) and what they like to think their lives are about. Piss-elegance is what The Homecoming does best, and in this production one of its most haunting characters is none of the aforementioned but John Kavanagh, a veteran Abbey man, making the closet-gay, limousine-driving brother perhaps the most quietly sinister of them all.

In its total and utter theatricality, The Homecoming is a sharp reminder from a Dublin company that Pinter was once one of them, touring Ireland as an actor with Anew McMaster and learning the sheer possibilities of stagecraft. In mesmerising detail, this revival asks us to reconsider the playwright as a master technician and tactician of the stage: not merely to be taught, hut to be caught in full flood.

Of all the major plays of the 1960s, none has fallen through the revival net more comprehensively than David Rudkin's Afore Night Come, now at the Young Vic in its first London revival for all of 40 years. Back in 1962, Kenneth Tynan thought that 'not since Look Back in Anger has a playwright made a debut more striking than this', though admittedly he did also note that 'the play is flawed by its limping reluctance to come to an end, and by a proliferation of symbolic references to Jesus Christ'.

Even that would hardly explain the disappearance, nor the apparent collapse of Rudkin's subsequent career, despite the fact that he also wrote the screenplay for Fahrenheit 451, Unlike Wesker, who frequently reminds us how the London theatre has deserted him, Rudkin at 65 never complains, never explains; and there would seem always to have been doubts about Afore Night Come. Despite an amazing original cast (Timothy West, David Warner, Freddie Jones) even Rudkin's agent Peggy Ramsay told him to 'bury it', and something about the mix of mysticism and murder seems to have worked constantly to its disadvantage.

We are in a pear orchard near Birmingham, evidently based on one where Rudkin himself worked during a university vacation summer in 1960; Tynan, coming from that part of the Midlands, noted similarities to a celebrated 'witchcraft murder' which took place there in 1945, which also involved a gruesome death by pitchfork, and which was never solved.

The cross-section of labourers Rudkin assembles in the orchard are to some extent stereotypical: the bully, the academic, the gay, the illiterate and the tramp, and as they go about picking the pears, we are reminded how much better David Storey was to write of work in progress in later plays such as The Contractor and Life Class.

But then the Rudkin play takes off in an altogether different direction, moving abruptly from rustic to ritualistic. The killing of the tramp is ordered like some sort of black Mass, and a play that comes from the earth ends by covering it in blood. A new, young National Theatre Studio cast directed by Rufus Norris seem to be having a little trouble with this abrupt change of gear, and for once Ian MacNeil's set is a disaster: a forest of naked light bulbs may suggest the shape of the pears in the trees, but they set up a totally interior, studio feeling which denies us any real sense of the open Warwickshire countryside at its most forbidding.

And finally, to the Lyric Hammersmith after a long road tour, Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral is a stage adaptation of a classic Bollywood movie about relative values. While we await Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams, also Bollywoodbased, this gives us only the vaguest idea of what to expect since the Tamasha show has its cast miming to a soundtrack and is surprisingly unspectacular: the musical numbers tend to be solos and duets, the domestic comedy-into-tragedy of the plot is vaguely reminiscent of an Indian Ayckbourn, and the cast is a little uncharismatic throughout. Nevertheless, the earnestness with which they play apparently stock characters, and the familiarity with which an almost all-Asian audience greets them, suggests that what Feydeau is to the French, or Ray Cooney to the Brits, Bollywood is to Bombay and all points east.