The Homecoming by Harold Pinter - Review

The Homecoming sticks in your gullet. No-one is quite what they seem. No-one is telling the truth. The play starts with Teddy returning to his working class family home in London after six years in the USA. He is happily married to Ruth and they have three wonderful children. He teaches philosophy at an Ivy League university.

You might think – for a moment – that this would be a simple tale of the prodigal son. Teddy elopes to the middle class and returns to overcome the family’s resentments about his success. Ruth, the outsider, would face rejection until she rescues the elderly uncle through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Such a tale might end in reconciliation over a knees-up with whisky and dance.

But this is a Harold Pinter play. All of this is upended.

Violence is only a heartbeat away. The family is a military junta of manipulation: physical, emotional and financial. Masculine domination is celebrated as glory. Feminine power is outnumbered but wicked. This is power by gender, class, age and rank. Pinter sets up the characters and lets them fire at each other.

From the start Teddy and Ruth don’t look in love. Ruth wants the house key so she can walk the streets at midnight. The father, Max, dominates with violent threats but his grip on the walking stick becomes increasingly hesitant. The sadism and flirtation of Lenny, Teddy’s brother, morphs into a business plan for prostitution. Joey, the younger brother at the bottom of the hierarchy, is beautifully callow but blurts into emotional maturity. And uncle Sam’s subtle secrets twist him into heart failure.

The drama is accomplished through meticulous directing by Steven O’Shea with acting that precisely embodies Pinter’s script. The transition in power balances and allegiances between characters is superbly signalled and timed: Teddy’s lifeless academic body, Lenny’s scheming smile, Ruth’s legs uncrossed and crossed – and uncrossed.

By the end everything can be doubted: were Ruth and Teddy really married and did they have three children? Was Teddy even a professor? Lenny seems to trip up his brother’s academic philosophy with only a tenth of the education. And what of Lenny’s boasts of sexual attacks under brick arches and on the rubble of industrial waste?

We don’t want adornment. So the set is a bluff front room with a standard lamp and drinks cabinet. We can almost see out the window. The lights are precise and sufficient. A piano tinkle between scenes is curt enough.

For today’s audience the sparring characters conjure a highly specific working class existence. We would expect to find Max’s family anywhere from White City to the East End. Curiously, however, ‘The Homecoming’ was written in Worthing during 1964. There can’t have been a single fairy light on the pier.

It would be easy to over—do Pinter — to hector and fight into hysteria. It would be easy to underplay the subtleties. Instead this production kept us superbly, uncomfortably, unbalanced.

Mike Aiken