Whether this 1965 play by Harold Pinter appeals or appalls, there is no doubting its ability to enthrall. Written during the time when the Kray twins were building their dodgy empire through intimidation and fear, Pinter’s portrayal of a dysfunctional London family mirrors the menace a patriarchal figure can bestow on those around him. The patriarch in question is Max, a retired butcher and father to Teddy, Joey and Lenny. Nothing less like a model parent is difficult to imagine and there are heavy hints that ruling his boys with a rod of iron was only one of many despicable things to which they were subjected. Now an old man, reduced to walking with the aid of a stick, Max still has the power to wound and subjugate with his foul tongue, which he does with abandon. Sharing his house with his brother and two of his sons, Max is desperate to retain his power over them all.
The homecoming of the title is the visit from the States of third son, Teddy and his new wife, former model, Ruth. Teddy is a philosophy lecturer who escaped the family power struggle six years before and the years haven’t lessened his anxiety at being in this toxic home environment. His return highlights Max’s instability; initially rejoicing in his son’s unexpected visit before switching to unaccountable rage.
Soutra Gilmour’s set is sparse but effectively eerie. This London house has no creature comforts and the sitting room, where the action is set, couldn’t be more unwelcoming. The palpable tension is highlighted by the acting space, lit by a malignant red light, and encased in a red steel frame. One of the few pieces of furniture is an easy chair, placed centre stage in Act Two. This chair belongs to Max and woe betide anyone else using it. So when Ruth, the only female in the house breaks the unspoken rule, it’s obvious that a woman has, or is about to take charge. For the first time? Who knows, because we learn little about the boy’s mother, apart from hints from Sam that Jessie was no better than a tart. The trouble is, can we believe him, because everyone has a power struggle with everyone else? Sam goads his brother, Max. Lenny goads Ruth and Teddy, whilst Max goads everyone.
For the most part, the cast is excellent. Ron Cook’s Max, whilst undoubtedly a vicious, evil bastard, never slips into caricature and perfectly conveys the gradual slip of his patriarchal status. The wonderful John Simm makes Lenny a more menacing character, masking his nastiness behind a sardonic smile. But it’s a smile without warmth, which never reaches his eyes. You’re never sure what he might do next and his quick wit is almost always at someone else’s expense. Keith Allen’s Sam is nicely understated as the effeminate chauffeur brother, whilst John MacMillan makes the slow witted would-be boxer, Joey, thoroughly believable. Gemma Chan’s Ruth is less so. Her demure stance at the beginning rings true but not the metamorphosis into something much more sexy. Inscrutable yes …… erotic, not so much! Likewise her husband Teddy played by Gary Kemp. He seems ill at ease throughout, as if he’s not terribly sure what makes his character tick and his performance appears forced.
The Homecoming is full of unanswered questions (not least why Ruth should do an about turn and decide to stay in this acrid environment), which you find yourself trying to work out long after leaving the theatre. A play that is short on sympathetic characters, but compelling nonetheless.