Review - The Dumb Waiter
A² Productions re-opened the Michael Pilch Studio to sold out audiences. Pinter is a great playwright and Alex Foster and Alex Hopkins-McQuillan used the text to mould an engaging and intense portrayal of this one room drama. The dynamic between Noah Radcliffe-Adams as Ben, and Henry Calcutt as Gus was amazing, a great mix of careful casting and acting choices. A pair that have supposedly done many jobs together couldn't be more different. Ben is more considered, slow, and methodical contrasted with the more restless Gus who would fill silences with any remark he could find. Neither dominated the space with Noah's physical presence making up for his lack of movement compared to Henry who, while less of a physical presence statically, moved around to balance the dynamic.
I think many people were shocked at the brevity of the production, only around 45 minutes. Especially with a price of £6.50, more expensive than other black box student shows that run longer, it felt as though something was lacking. Of course a cheaper ticket to reflect the length would have helped or using that budget to increase the production value of the show. While the expensive price point isn't quite theft, the marketing strategy fringed on the edges of legality. A common pitfall that student productions stumble into is to forget that things exist outside the bubble that is Oxford, and one such example of that is shows marketing illegally by putting stickers up on public (and even private) buildings and objects. However despite this, there is no doubt that the sold out performances demonstrate the strength of the marketing push on Instagram.
While the show setting is a single simple room I was curious walking in as to how the dumb waiter itself would be implemented on a small black box budget. Impressively, designer Poppy Atkinson-Gibson constructed their own flat that had all the necessary story elements integrated, a rare occurrence for these smaller venues due to the limited time and resources for construction. Unfortunately it felt a little on the basic side with just a sheet of fabric as the dumb waiter's door and a speaking tube that began to fall apart. As a set piece it served its function, but a little more aesthetic design would have elevated the dumb waiter to a focal point of the visual storytelling. The thrust staging and mirrored set helped draw the audience in to palpable tension in the space. Two beds framed the plays namesake, the dumb waiter, a Chekov's gun of a set piece, raising audience anticipation throughout the first section of the play. The almost comical fact that the dumb waiter required a stage manager to sit behind in a small box to empty and fill it as required is a testament to the crews commitment to the production.
The lighting and sound were stripped back to the barebones. A simple warm wash with some blue fill for lights and only sound effects when required by the script created a strikingly hostile and unfeeling environment for these characters to inhabit. Only one transition reducing face light to shift to evening allowed for a focus on the acting. However this single shift could have been more subtle and less abrupt as it did stand out against its own simplicity. The separation of the blue floods at a steeper angle to the other lights gave the impression of windows high up on the wall. This helped to set the scene of the isolated basement especially with moments where the cast seem to peer up towards them integrating the design and direction. Costumes by Ciara Beale fit the characters extremely well, completing and blending with the actors' characterisations with a timeless quality leaving it very much up for debate when the production was taking place.
Overall it was an enjoyable rendition of a classic with engaging characterisation and supporting technical elements. While not the most complex technically, each choice aided the creation of the snapshot of the two characters lives. It undeniably leaves you wanting more, an exciting prospect for a new production company and all those involved moving on to what will be much anticipated projects.
Written by - H. Dovell