Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

odd couple 

Christopher Commander as Gus and Dexter Whitehead as Ben

The Dumb Waiter/This Wide Night

Sutton Arts Theatre


One act plays are the Cinderellas of theatre, the stuff of drama festivals for amateur companies, incestuous events which pass the general public by, or the standard fare of school house play competitions, if such things still exist in these cash strapped times, almost as if they are test pieces and not proper theatre.

Yet they can be wonderful affairs, telling their stories, expressing their ideas in a theatrical sentence rather than taking a full chapter, and it is a genre that has appealed to some stellar names.

There is Wolf Mankowitz’s wonderful The Bespoke Overcoat, Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner, while the likes of Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller . . . even Euripides. got in on the (one) act, while the unchallenged king of the theatrical short story was Tennessee Williams who rattled off more than 70 in his career.

Here we open with Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. Nobel laureate Pinter, who turned down a knighthood incidentally, is part of the influential bedrock of not just British but world theatre, and this is typical Pinter, although, at the risk of being struck down by bolts of lightning from the celestial guardians of Thespis, I must admit I am not a Pinter fan, but I do appreciate good writing and good acting, and that is what this brings to the evening.

We are in a dingy basement of what appears to be an abandoned café somewhere in Birmingham, all set in a greyscale world, any colour you like as long as it falls between black and white.

Ben and Gus are hit men, ready, in situ, and awaiting orders for their current job, cooped up in a room with no windows and the only furniture two beds that look as if they could have been bought second hand from Wormwood Scrubs, and at times Ben and Gus are reminiscent of a more sinister Fletcher and Godber from Porridge.


Nothing personal from Ben, just a job. Pictures: Christopher Commander

At other times it could be Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot. But whoever they are it is two wonderful performances from Dexter Whitehead as the senior killer Ben and Christopher Commander as his bundle of nerves lieutenant Gus.

Ben is happy waiting, boredom a time to do nothing but read and reread the paper, time drifting lazily by, while Gus is unable to keep still, off to the toilet with its reluctant flush every few minutes, obsessed with his right shoe – the left seemingly less offensive – and constantly prodding Ben with questions he cannot answer.

Questions such as who is the target?  Who owns this place? When will he call? He being Wilson . . . perhaps, as that was the only name mentioned. Who he is, what he wants, who the target is, why they are in this abandoned, seemingly derelict grey world we are never to find out.

As they wait, so do we, opening with a long pause as Gus ties, unties, examines, ties, unties . . . (repeat) his right shoe. It is a clever theatrical trick to build tension without a word said and sets in train the idea that silence breeds anxiety.

Then there is the bizarre episode when an envelope is pushed under the door, it contains no message, just a dozen or so matches. The significance . . . another question neither Ben, nor anyone else for that matter, can answer.

The building is abandoned except orders for food suddenly are sent down on the dumb waiter at the rear of the stage. Up to this point it has been hidden, unnoticed, just another grey panel in a grey wall, and its whirring into life comes as a shock.

The orders, slowly become more complex and demanding, way out of the league of what appears to have once been a run down caff with a three ring gas cooker – and one where the gas has run out and our hired killers have no money for the meter.

Then the speaking tube comes into play and suddenly the well dressed, suited and booted, Cockney killers, in charge, in control, waiting to end a life to order, are the ones being controlled by cryptic food orders arriving on the dumb waiter, and a voice we never hear, but given due deference by Ben, at the other end of a speaking tube. The tables have been turned, if they ever existed in the first place.

ex cons

Katie Johnson as Marie with Joanne Ellis's Lorraine just popping in for a minute to see she is all right - the minute a week and still ticking on when we left

 Ben is the senior one, superiority emphasised by his insistence upon demanding Gus makes the tea, that “light the kettle” is the correct, universally acknowledged phrase rather than Gus’s more factually correct “light the gas”.

For a moment in the row, Ben becomes menacing, but that quickly evaporates and they are back to an uneasy camaraderie. The ending comes . . . well let’s just say it comes. This is Pinter who poses questions you don’t even understand, so are hardly likely to answer, so it’s about whatever you want it to be about.

A week is a long time in one act drama but that is the timespan of the second play, a touching, bittersweet This Wide Night by Chloë Moss, penned after she had a spell as Writer in Residence at HMP Cookham Wood.

Lorraine, or perhaps effin Lorraine as she might have put it, is fresh out of jail and heads straight for her old cellmate Marie who is living in a studio, a term Marie decries, declaring it is just an effin bedsit. It is a single room with a single bed, a TV with no sound and a broken telephone – broken or unpaid bills we never know.

Their language is, should we say, somewhat industrial at times, mind you banged up in our overcrowded, understaffed, privatised, not far removed from Victorian times, prison system might well colour the linguistics of even a Professor Higgins.

It is another pair of superb performances this time from Joanne Ellis, often seen directing, as Lorraine and the versatile Katie Johnson as Marie.

Sutton Arts is almost like rep for Katie in the last few months having been Joan in two hander A Walk in the Woods, daughter Jo in A Taste of Honey and now ex-con Marie in another demanding and very different part.

The pair carry the stigma of ex-prisoner around with them, relying on benefits, on menial jobs, if you can find one, on inadequate support upon release, but relying most of all upon each other. Thrown together behind bars, they now need each other outside, there is a bond, a love of sorts, between them.


Marie cuts a sad, lonely figure in a hostile, alien world

They are two of life’s unfortunates, inadequates if you like, huddled together sheltering from an alien world outside. Newly released Lorraine is 50, in for murder, something she doesn’t talk about, who comes out hoping to build a relationship with her son Ben, taken into care when she was taken into custody. This Ben, incidentally, nothing to do with Dumb Waiter Ben. She leaves prison with a half empty holdall, a book on space and a prescription drug problem.

Lorraine has a nice line of asides, such as when she asks for a drink because her tongue is like a piece of Ryvita.

We never did find out what Marie was in for, certainly less than Lorraine, but we glean she was a graduate of the care system before ending up in nick, and when she gives Lorraine a present from Primark you suspect it has been “liberated” rather than bought.

There is a suspicion from her reaction to Lorraine’s pill popping that she has had her own drug problem in the past, while as for her work . . . although never stated . . . being on the game seems a reasonable assumption. It might be more dangerous than the ex-con bar work she claims to do, but it’s steady, doesn’t ask questions, and doesn’t give a . . . , you know, about your background.

It's a familiar downward spiral for female ex-prisoners with time never really served in society's eyes, real work is hard to find so theft, drugs or alcohol, or both, and the hard choice but easy money of prostitution is a common path, often leading back to jail.

As for Lorraine and Marie, once we are past the reunion stage, settling into an uneasy relationship in the real world rather than incarcerated one where they met, the pair start to open up.

We never did get the why or the who Lorraine killed with a broken bottle but we did hear  she never had a holday, and about son Ben and how he had proudly chosen his new duffel coat when he was six or seven, it was blue . . . or maybe brown. He was wearing it when social services took him away some twenty or so years ago.

Then there is Marie, who played racing raindrops, alone, hoping hers would win so everything would be all right. She raced against raindrops she designated as people she saw as upmarket, such as Charlotte Hughes at school, upmarket because her mum worked at Gregg’s so she had cream cakes in her packed lunch. The simple things children find important.

She has an irrational fear of being away from home “even when I haven’t got one”. The nearest to home is the bedsit  but that has become just as much a prison as the one they were released from, except this time it is keeping them secure from the world outside instead of the other way round.

There is plenty of humour in the play, but also sadness and raw emotion. Lorraine has a dream of a family, and a meeting with Ben, but not much else, Marie has snatched memories of a past but her only family now is herself.

Lorraine has found her again, and just staying the night, just the one night, soon becomes a week, in a single bed, and when she finally does leave she is back within moments to shelter from the rain, or more hiding from the world because the rain has already stopped. It will always be raining outside for the pair of them.

They have found each other again and you suspect that is all they will ever have, nothing but each other, a book on space and a telly with no sound in an effin bedsit.

The result is two plays carried along by fine writing, superb acting and both sensitively directed by Faye Hatch, who is reunited with Katie Johnson again, after playing mum Helen to her Jo in the recent A Taste of Honey. Full marks too for holding her nerve to use silence as a prop in The Dumb Waiter and allowing the characters to grow in This Wide Night.

As always the Sutton sets are exceptional, this time designed by Paul Wescott, Mark Natrass and the director and the orders will be coming down the dumb waiter and the rain falling on the bedsit to 06-05-23.

Roger Clarke


Sutton Arts

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