Why were we always so afraid to laugh at, or at any rate with, Harold Pinter? When The Homecoming first opened in 1965 at the Aldwych, I seem to remember reverent silences both onstage and in the auditorium, and a willing suspension of disbelief that this was the same dramatist who only a few years earlier had been writing hilariously sinister revue sketches for comics like Kenneth Williams and Peter Cook.
Thirty years on, an admirable new revival at the National by Roger Michell makes it clear that this is indeed the Pinter of the revue sketches, and much of at least the first half of the Lyttelton production is bleakly, blackly, hilariously funny.
Of all Pinter plays The Homecoming is probably the most immediately accessible and user-friendly; it is the instant guide as well as the thumbnail sketch of what we mean by Pinteresque. A grotesque North London family, many of whose cousins were soon to appear in the works of Joe Orton, send their newly-acquired relative, in this case a glacial Lindsay Duncan, to try her luck and theirs on the streets of Soho as a prostitute.
As so many of his other plays, The Homecoming is about sexual violence and the territorial imperative; it also affords half a dozen truly wonderful parts and is perhaps the only Pinter in which these parts are in the end greater than the whole. Menace and ambiguity, which any first-year drama student will tell you are the playwright's especial stock-in-trade, are not so readily apparent here; instead we have a magnificently plotted drama dominated by the character of Lenny, of neither mice nor men, but a magnificent creation once played by the author, a vintage semi-literate thug and a marvelously anarchic character superbly underplayed here by Michael Sheen. Whether arranging for his sister-in-law to go on the streets or merely paying filial obeisance to his dad, Lenny is one of the great creations of the modern theatre.
The designer has taken a curious decision to set a claustrophobic piece in a space that could handsomely accommodate several armies, though at least here we do get to see a loft crammed with all the detritus of a long non-functional family. It suddenly occurs to me that "Hancock," "Steptoe," "Arthur Haynes," above all "Peter Cook," all the great television comedy shows of the period, owed a considerable debt to The Homecoming and, it must quickly be added, it to them. The truly comic voice of Britain in the early sixties, a mixture of threat and whine, is better caught here than anywhere, and in what could also have been a situation comedy called "At Home with the Krazy Krays," Michell has wisely cast such vintage telecomics as Sam Kelly and the magnificently lugubrious David Bradley.
I don't believe there is a better revival in London at present, nor a better introduction to Pinter as a comic dramatist as well as the master of the sinister and the seriously strange.
First off, a tripartite declaration: I believe the Henry IV plays (newly arrived at the Old Vic) to be Shakespeare's greatest, and therefore arguably the best in the English language; I further believe that touring Shakespeare in this country should not become, as it virtually already has, an RSC monopoly; and I am well aware that the collapse of Prospect, Actors' Touring Company and other classical troupes on the road has weakened the whole of British theatre.
All the more reason then to bid a warm welcome to English Touring Theatre, who bring this new Stephen Unwin staging to the Vic as part of their current tour; it is only then that the critical problems arise.
In a company of 20, many of them doubling and trebling minor roles, it is really only the top five, Timothy West as Falstaff, his son Sam as Hal, Gary Waldhorn as Henry IV, Joseph O'Connor as a vintage Northumberland and Shallow, and Paul Imbusch as Blunt and York who seem to have any real idea or memory of how these amazing plays should be done.
For they are in every sense religious, political, familial and even geographicalthe very spine of England herself, a great cavalcade of people and politics from the heights of the Court to the wilds of Gloucestershire and the depths of Eastcheap. But an essentially scratch road company can only just begin to do them justice.
The verse-speaking is all too often shaky, and it is not reassuring on the line "Go some of you guard these traitors" to have one bloke with what looks like an upturned broomstick gazing balefully at three healthy traitors who could easily have made a run for it. Such are the perils of small casts and the impossibly high cost of touring; a much worse problem is that the otherwise agile director has not entirely worked out whether he wants these plays to be religious, monarchical or revolutionary. They have, of course, to be all three plus warlike, nostalgic and epic.
Everything improves drastically towards the end of part two, even the costumes, but there is a sense here of a cut-price collection of highlights from the plays rather than the vast, intricate tapestry of them. But let us not be ungrateful; this is the best (if also the only) Henry IV that most British cities are going to get in 1997 and possibly 1998; those of us with great and long memories of the way things used to be on the classical touring circuit had better just get used to the fact that the Bard is no longer big business on the road. Let us, like West's near-definitive Falstaff, just learn to adapt to changing times.
-- By Sheridan Morley