The Homecoming review – Young Vic, London

Joe Cole in The Homecoming. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Rating: ★★★★★

The Young Vic’s sublime production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming delivers in both style and substance under the direction of Matthew Dunster, in what is a late contender for production of the year.

Doctor of Philosophy Teddy (Robert Emms) has returned to his family home after six years away, bringing his wife Ruth (Lisa Diveney) with him, though the family have no idea of her existence. The home is occupied by his father Max (Jared Harris), his uncle Sam (Nicolas Tennant), and his two younger brothers, Lenny (Joe Cole) and Joey (David Angland). This is a house full of male violence; his father was a butcher, Lenny is a pimp who regales with stories of life on the street, and Joey is training as a boxer and works in demolition. They regularly attack each other – both verbally and physically, though their main derision is for women. Only the gentle Max – who the others goad for his supposed homosexuality – shows any sensitivity towards them.

Lisa Diveney and Joe Cole. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Even Teddy, who has attempted to escape this world, shows a level of contempt towards his wife when we first meet them. Arriving at the house in the dead of night he constantly contradicts her and ignores what she tells him. When she says she’s not thirsty, he suggests she take a drink anyway; when he says she’s not tired, he suggests she goes to bed anyway – it is as if he believes she has no agency over her own decisions.

The underlying menace is barely concealed in the first half; an oppressive calm residing over the residence, Dunster keeping the level right below the surface before letting it viciously burst into plain view in the second. All the while Dunster seeks out and highlights the dark comedy in Pinter’s text – this may be a difficult play, but it is one that is full of humour. Following tense moments it acts as a relief, and a release.

Lisa Diveney and Robert Emms. Photo: Manuel Harlan

While Lenny proclaims himself ‘sensitive to atmosphere,’ the production is full of it. Sally Ferguson’s lighting is visually stunning; the opening scene seems to fade from black and white to colour as Lenny emerges from mists of time – and a spotlight acts as a sudden shift in tone and mood, with characters pitched back in time or into a moment of extreme drama. The lighting and Moi Tran’s set evoke film noir in their darker moments, although you get a feeling that the expansive living area, though referenced as being large in the text, could have been shrunk slightly to add to the claustrophobic tension of the household.

The performances within the space are incredible. Cole plays Lenny with a pitched voice, his face pinched and taut when angry and conveying Lenny’s slight detachment from reality when calm. As Ruth sensually grinds her bottom on his crotch as she bends to pick up a coffee cup while Teddy and Max are distracted by conversation, he looks off to the side and into the middle distance, picking at his ear as if making a difficult but inconsequential decision. Cole’s approach highlights the quality of Pinter’s language and Lenny’s odd blend of high formality and colloquialism. Pinter channels Shakespeare when Lenny asks Teddy, ‘What do you make about all this buisness about being and not-being?’

Jared Harris. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Diveney’s slight Ruth is deceptively demure with a hard centre that shows that, though at the mercy of these men, she still maintains control. Harris, in his first stage role in fifteen years, fills Max with empty fury; he might be the family patriarch but his power is waning – coming to the play’s close, it is Lenny who leads them in their new venture. But there is still power in the memory of his past fury and even an allusion to child abuse in reference to how he tucked his children in at night – even the innocent lines have added bite.

Max sizes Ruth up in the same way he sizes up one of the fillies of his gambling past; a click of the fingers to get her attention before staring deep into her eyes – his panicked reaction, pleading to the cool Lenny about whether she will undo them, suggests his answer wasn’t what he wanted. And by the end, Teddy is pulled fully back under as he directs an angry tirade about ‘objects’ towards his wife. As his world crumbles he blames a woman.

The Homecoming is at the Young Vic until 27 January

Although this is rated 5-stars by our reviewer, we’re no longer providing star-ratings for most productions – click here to read about why we’re scaling back on star-ratings