“It’s the writing, first and foremost. There’s an excitement and challenge to interpreting it.” Keith Allen, veteran actor and Iconic British geezer, is talking about his huge enthusiasm for Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. Taking place on a single set, in the home of four warring men, this uncompromising play asks questions about tradition, family dynamics and personal values.
The finest of all Pinter’s works, this stunning play is seeing a revival half a century after its London premiere. Director Jamie Glover is taking Allen and a host of brilliant actors around the UK, including a visit to Theatre Royal Brighton on Mon 2 – Sat 7 May.
Allen says the venture, and its responsibility to the source material, can be viewed as two distinct works of art here. “One is the actual play he wrote, which itself is a magnificent piece of literature, and hopefully your interpretation of it will qualify as another. Your job is to interpret it to the max. Excuse the pun. I think we’ve managed to do that, certainly under Jamie Glover’s direction. And the company is a great ensemble.” This play is as significant as ever, confounding, shocking and beguiling audiences with its visceral portrayal of family power structures.
Teddy, played by Sam Alexander (Emmerdale, Chichester Festival Theatre’s The Watsons), is a philosophy professor at an American university. He unexpectedly returns to his childhood home, accompanied by his wife Ruth, a bored and lost young woman, played by Shanaya Rafaat (Around the World in 80 Days at St James Theatre, Doctor Who).
What they interrupt is a perpetual existential struggle between Allen’s Max, the resentful patriarch, and Teddy’s brothers. Lenny, played by Gavin & Stacey star Mathew Horne, is enigmatic but hides a darker side. RSC regular Geoffrey Lumb (Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light) plays Joey, a demolition worker and aspiring boxer. While four-time Olivier Award nominee Ian Bartholomew (Into The Woods, Mrs Henderson Presents, Coronation Street) plays Sam, Max’s shady brother who drives for a car service.
An uneasy status quo is disrupted by the visit, sparking distrust, outbursts and struggles for dominance. These range from subtle passive-aggressions to grand gestures, and all add to an overriding sense of dread. “In Max’s case he does perform for his family, but he also performs for himself. He’s an old man coming down the hill, and he’s very aware of that.”
The tone of the play effortlessly drifts from social realism to brutal farce, as this family and their menacing interplay demand our attention. “We’ve had some great reviews. The audience has been… I’m not sure ‘enjoyed’ is the right word, but they’ve responded and appreciated the work. It’s been really good.” While The Homecoming has won numerous awards, including a Tony, its ambiguous narrative has left it wide open for interpretation. Various issues around control are prevalant throughout, whether this is the control of a father over his progeny, sexual politics or abusive relationships.
“It’s very relevant. Unfortunately, very little has changed. If you want to view misogyny on a nuclear scale, and man’s extraordinary desire to get in front of another man, then this is the play to see.” But, perhaps the real homecoming belongs to Ruth. Perhaps her marriage isn’t idyllic. And perhaps her own search for meaning has implications for this awkward family dynamic. Like much of Pinter’s work, the play is less focused upon story arcs than its delicious and poignant language.
Allen is quite comfortable talking in depth about his craft, and equally comfortable to deflect any questions which fail to interest him. I was half expecting this, and don’t take it as an affront to my unquestionably majestic interview style. While notorious for being part of a lively Soho late night scene which included Stephan Fry, Damien Hirst and a plethora of Cool Britannia indie bands, he has built a fearsome reputation through his acting work. After breaking through on the stand-up circuit in the late 70s, he was part of a rich alternative scene which married perfectly into the edgier ambitions of a newly founded Channel 4. There he’d spend quite a substantial amount of time wearing just underpants and a leather driving coat in The Comic Strip’s The Bullshitters, a hilariously robust buddy cop satire – as well as The Yob, which inserted football hooliganism into a familiar body horror trope.
Enter the 90s and Allen was everywhere, from appearing in Carry On films to finding worldwide fame as the mysterious and suddenly rather dead new lodger in Danny Boyle’s breakout film, Shallow Grave. He’d reprise the role for Boyle’s masterpiece Trainspotting, and subsequently appear in everything from Black Books and Spaced to Robin Hood and 24-Hour Party People. The fascination with Pinter came at the turn of millennium, when the writer cast Allen in two of his plays at London’s forward-looking Almeida Theatre, first playing Lambert in Celebration and then Mr Sands in a revival of the playwright’s powerful debut, The Room.
Allen says when Pinter was directing, he’d often recruit certain actors just because he liked them. “He’d see something in them, and just knew instinctively that they can do what he wants. You don’t spend a lot of time acting with him, you spend a lot of time ‘being’. In this production, that has resonated with Jamie Glover. He’s cast people that can do certain things.” Allen asserts that this style of working isn’t that tricky. You’re halfway there just by being part of the group of actors chosen to do it.
He’s already starred in two productions of The Homecoming, and now gets to perform as its dysfunctional father. “It’s a part I’ve always wanted to play… and I’ve been on stage with two very good exponents of it. I’ve been watching with a very keen eye.” Throughout the play, history is always hovering in the background. There are past mistakes and crimes, the passing of the family matriarch and unmentioned heartache.
Power is also an important theme in the play. All its characters are locked into a struggle to establish dominance. They squabble and attempt to outsmart one another, but violence is the ultimate tool to demonstrate their superiority. And something which can distract from the ever-present fear of emasculation. All the men have different reasons to demonstrate their dominance, from self-loathing and hatred to an attempt to prove how much they’ve grown-up and evolved. There’s little surprise this is widely considered Pinter’s finest work. On the surface his plays appear to be naturalistic and brutal but examining them deeper reveals absurdity and a rich understanding of human nature.
Emerging as one of English theatre’s Angry Young Men, Harold Pinter’s oeuvre is crammed with nuance and ambiguity. His characters talk like real people, often repeating themselves, trailing off and unable to properly manifest their thoughts. “In the text, there is a difference between silence and a pause. When we did Celebration, I remember him saying: ‘If the pause doesn’t work, don’t do it.’ Obviously, what he meant was the way you’re doing it is wrong. That’s why the pause doesn’t work.” While these protagonists may not be able to express themselves clearly, their foibles or uncomfortable stillness unwittingly speak volumes about the human condition and prompts profound questions about social structures and individuality. “Jamie is an extraordinarily talented man when it comes to forensically going through the text, looking for exclamation marks and pauses with a real rigour.” Allen likens the dialogue to performing a piece of music, with the actors as instruments. Pinter’s ultra-realistic speech rhythms only add to the dark comedy of the ludicrous circumstances he thrusts his characters into.
This might be a career defining role for Allen, his portrayal of the embittered Max in this modern classic drawing rave reviews. But I suspect he’ll just take it all in his stride before moving onto the next challenge. Playing serial killer John Cooper in ITV’s The Pembrokeshire Murders last year, making a documentary about lottery winner Michael Carroll or taking a group of Scottish people with Tourette’s to visit the Parisian hospital where the condition was first diagnosed, there’s always been a wild punk rock attitude to his work.
This is the guy who tracked down quintessential TV chef Keith Floyd for one last interview, or just happened to co-write New Order’s only chart-topping single, the evergreen football anthem World In Motion. Allen’s might not have been a conventional journey, but it is a genuinely fascinating one. His path has been charted simply by what feels right. These days, it’s commonplace to be known for working in different fields, especially as there are so many different outlets for creative endeavours. But in the 80s, career roles were more defined. “You’d be an actor, a writer, a musician, whatever. People who acted in films would never consider doing TV, whereas now everyone is everything. I was doing all these things and being considered a bit weird. But it’s always suited me down to the ground, as I’ve never had a gameplan.”
Keith Allen tours in The Homecoming until Sat 21 May, including a run at Theatre Royal Brighton on Mon 2 – Sat 7 May.
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