Hampstead Theatre at 60 preview; The Dumb Waiter

Harry Lloyd and Philip Jackson rehearse The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre

Harry Lloyd and Philip Jackson rehearse The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre - Credit: Helen Maybanks

Philip Jackson and Harry Lloyd play bantering hit-men in the theatre’s anniversary revival of Harold Pinter’s dark comedy

Harry Lloyd and Philip Jackson rehearse The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre

Harry Lloyd and Philip Jackson rehearse The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre - Credit: Helen Maybanks

When Hampstead Theatre staged his double bill in January 1960, Harold Pinter's playwrighting career had been chequered.

A student production of his debut The Room; a London opening for The Birthday Party which closed after eight performances were the unlikely first steps to success.

Then James Roose Evans put on The Dumb Waiter and The Room in the first season of his fledgling Hampstead Theatre Club, and the touchpaper was lit. After a successful run in the Moreland Hall in Holly Bush Vale, Pinter's 'comedies of menace' transferred to The Royal Court. Pinter went ont to try out new plays at Hampstead and The Dumb Waiter - two small-talking hit-men in a basement, recieving menacing messages via a serving hatch - is now considered to be Pinter distilled. It is revived for Hampstead Theatre's 60th anniversary season.

'Sixty years ago, Hampstead Theatre gave this young playwright a chance, breathed oxygen into his career, and Pinter took a punt putting on his plays in a village hall,' says Harry Lloyd who plays Gus the young hitman.

For co-star Philip Jackson, whose TV career ranges from Poirot to Boomers and Raised by Wolves, it's his first time on stage in a decade. His last role, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman was 'a hard part to follow', but there's a 'sentimental' reason for playing the more dominant Ben.

'I did it as a student in the late 60s, I played Gus, it was directed by Howard Davies and it was amazing. I wasn't sure at the time that I was going to be an actor and it was influential. I was thinking about an alternative lifestyle, where you don't have to have a proper job, and asked Howard 'do you think I should go into acting?'. He encouraged me.'

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It's Lloyd's first Pinter and he's loving it: 'It's just the two of us on stage, a single conversation, we have been collaborative and explored it together.'

The Game of Thrones and Wolf Hall actor is not the first to spot the play's oblique political message. 'Two people trapped in a box in a slightly surreal spartan environment controlled by a mysterious force.'

Director Alice Hamilton thinks the playwright was also exploring 'ideas of masculine power and violence'. 'A focus on male authoritarianism runs throughout his early political plays, which often sit alongside themes of misogynistic abuse, rape, prostitution and female submission and exclusion. In The Dumb Waiter, women are excluded entirely. Viewed with his other works, the play could be seen to be part of a broader conversation about masculine power structures, but it also stands alone as a piece of drama about two contract killers who just happen to be men. The joy of the Pinter play is there is never one single interpretation.'

Lloyd was aware of the playwright's famously specific stage directions, the Pinter pauses, and feeling that 'Pinter must be done like this'.

'I had imagined we would get to a place where we could do our version without breaking any rules but I'm beginning to think there's not as much space as you think. Certain scenes have to be a certain way, but the emotional through line is up for grabs.

'The thrill of that is how precise, committed, focused you have to be. That's the trick of it. But it's not a straightjacket any more than a piece of classical music is a straightjacket.'

The duo talk of the play's speech rhythms, overlapping dialogue, non sequiturs, the late 50s banter of working class characters which was revolutionary at the time.

'It's Jewish Hackney humour,' says Lloyd. 'I'm amazed how early in his career this was, it's incredibly polished. He has refined it with a scalpel, the structure is incredibly precise and it works. It's a timepiece, some 60 years later we are finding that certain sections can only happen at a fast pace, you can't be naturalistic.'

Hamilton agrees it stands up today: 'The elliptical dialogue and mercurial characters keep it alive: however many times this play is performed, there are always more layers to unpeel. There is something so endlessly rewarding about its carefully crafted dramatic structure - and there is a savage wit and sharpness that is always going to speak to people.'

Jackson's concern was his age: 'Pinter never says how old they are, I thought maybe I am too old to do it.'

So he asked his friend, Ken Cranham, who has played Ben, 'will it work having an old git like me and a young dude like him'.

Cranham's salty reply was don't worry, the play is a 'brick shit house.'

Jackson, who started out in rep at Liverpool Playhouse - his first professional role was playing a soldier to Michael Gambon's Coriolanus - says shunning theatre work wasn't deliberate.

'It's just easier not to have to be there every night and I'm quite lazy. This came up, and there was sentimental value.'

After Eton and Oxford, Lloyd went straight into TV work, bypassing drama school until on his first stage job opposite Dr Who'S Jodie Whittaker he realised what he had missed.

'I learned a lot and now I try to do one play a year, if you come from a play to a film you are always better for it, they help each other out.'

The Dumb Waiter is a short play but 'people love going to short plays' says Lloyd. 'I'd rather be in the bar at 8.30 talking about it.'

Neither is worried the audience will ask for their money back.

'It's a 'brickshithouse' of a play,' says Jackson cheerfully.

'We can't f*** it up,' adds Lloyd.

'Except we can, there are myriad ways to get it wrong.'

The Dumb Waiter runs at Hampstead Theatre from March 19 until April 18 hampsteadtheatre.org