The Homecoming

Published April 17, 2008

A cruel, question-filled comic drama set in a dingy North London house divorced from anything female, The Homecoming is considered by many to be the masterpiece work of the world’s greatest living playwright. Matthew Amer was at the first night of the Almeida revival to see if it lived up to expectations.

It may be stating the obvious to say that Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming is an enigmatic play. It begins as a simple, yet utterly engaging family power struggle, the all-male household vying for position; Father Max maintaining the patriarchal role in the face of snide, cutting heir apparent Max and quietly watchful son Joey. The introduction of a woman into the equation turns everything slightly off-kilter.

Ruth is the wife of third son Teddy, a professor of philosophy who has not been home since their marriage nine years ago. The feminine touch in a masculine world changes every dynamic by introducing sexual politics. Who has the power now? Each of the men like to think they do, putting Ruth down, talking of women in the most derogatory terms, and planning to set her up as a prostitute. Yet Ruth, who ends the production sitting in the central patriarchal chair with everyone else around her, may indeed be pulling the strings.

This ambiguity is played upon by an aloof, confident, measured Jenny Jules as Ruth, nervous when first introduced into this den of masculinity, yet soon appearing to revel in her own latent sexual power. Her homecoming is a homecoming of a woman to the house, the boundaries of mother figure and sexual conquest blurring, most obviously in her relationship with youngest son Joey.

While Ruth is central to the action, Kenneth Cranham’s former butcher Max is the driving force. From calm, tale-telling old man, reliving former glories to seal his place at the head of the family, he explodes with violent fury and ire, cudgel-like walking stick waving like an extension of his body; a terrifying character fit for any tale of London gangsters.

Nigel Lindsay’s Lenny is no less fearful, yet offers a more covert threat. His set jaw, crocodile smile and blood-lettingly cutting remarks mark him out as a sinister force to be reckoned with. Danny Dyer’s Joe, by contrast, though an aspiring boxer, offers no threat, instead sitting and watching.

Michael Attenborough’s production is a pacey affair, pushed forward by the power of Cranham. Is it confusing? Yes. It asks questions, it forces the audience to think, it is not easy viewing. It is, though, rife with drama and humour, compelling and laced with magnetic performances.

The Homecoming plays at the Almeida until 22 March.

MA