Review: The Dwarfs, White Bear Theatre ★★★★☆

by Christopher Day.

The Dwarfs was Harold Pinter’s only novel, written in the early 1950s and adapted into a play by Pinter himself in the 1960s. That version saw one of the four characters, Virginia (Denise Laniyan), left on the cutting room floor, but her restoration in this new production of Kerry Lee Crabbe’s 1990s adaptation makes us wonder how she could ever have been excised. Virginia navigates her way through a group of three male friends in post-war Hackney, on a set (designed by Isabelle van Braeckel) depicting a slightly rundown bedsit. Her presence here exposes the nature of the trio’s friendships and creates an atmosphere that crackles with tension throughout.

The Dwarfs at White Bear Theatre. Photo: Bec Austin

Virginia is in a relationship with Pete (Joseph Patter), who is all smiles but with an ever-present hint of anxiety and insecurity beneath that veneer. We see Virginia lightly talking to Pete about his friendships, skirting around the frailties within them and trying to brush off his selfish comments about what she means to him. Any notion that their relationship is a happy one is quickly disabused when Virginia explains her thoughts on Hamlet. Pete takes offence at this in a misogynistic rant, his calm demeanour suddenly turning to fury. His rage as he screams in Virginia’s face is shocking, real and visceral.

The mood darkens from that point onwards, but in its early stages this is a production that is not just funny but hilarious – Crabbe’s writing and Harry Burton’s direction bring out the comedy inherent in Pinter’s dialogue while toning down his more extreme absurdities. The contrasting characters of the three friends are used to great effect – there’s a wonderful moment when Mark (Charlie MacGechan), self-confident and seemingly apathetic to a fault, casually tells Len (Ossian Perret) and Pete that he was born circumcised. While Pete is relatively unmoved, Len is gobsmacked. The latter’s over-the-top gestures, and frenetic earnestness in constantly interrogating even seemingly mundane objects and events make him inherently funny, with his explanation of a hypothetical night bus journey a particular highlight.

The Dwarfs at White Bear Theatre. Photo: Bec Austin

All four performers share a chemistry that enables them to adapt to the fluctuating relationships of their characters, and their acting is electric throughout all the verbal sparring and moments of physical tenderness and violence. Julian Starr’s sparse sound design incorporating period music and weather effects helps them along, as does Chuma Emembolu’s lighting, which comes to the fore in the disturbing moments where characters speak of their dreams and of the dwarfs.

This, then, is not a comfortable watch. Its initial light-heartedness hides a searing examination of the unsettling themes of domestic abuse and the fragility and realities of male friendship. In the original novel, these themes are occasionally lost in the abstracted nature of Pinter’s writing – but here the writing, acting and direction ensure that they take centre stage.

Christopher Day is currently studying for a PhD in modern British history at the University of Westminster. He enjoys watching theatre, reading literature and following Stevenage FC. You can find him on Twitter @ChrisDay96.