Theatre review: Stumped

Theatre Royal Bath until 27 May
Words by Melissa Blease

Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett – arguably two of the world’s most celebrated playwrights – first met at a 1961 production of Pinter’s 1960 drama The Caretaker, in Paris. After the play ended, the duo embarked on a long night cruising the bars of the Latin Quarter until Pinter eventually fell asleep at a table in the wee small hours of the morning. He awoke to find Beckett on hand with a tin of bicarbonate of soda, which he’d apparently driven all over Paris to find; the bicarb worked its ‘ease the hangover’ magic, and a lifelong friendship was born. Now that’s an evening (and an aftermath) that many of us would like to know more about…

Andrew Lancel as Harold Pinter and Stephen Tompkinson as Samuel Beckett

In his 2022 play Stumped, however, Shomit Dutta chose to explore the friendship between the two Nobel-prizewinning titans of modern drama through the medium of their shared passion for… cricket. 

Dutta was perfectly pitched to take such a concept and run with it; he’s been a member of Pinter’s beloved Gaieties CC for over two decades, and was Captain of the team during Pinter’s final years. In a recent interview with Guardian theatre aficionado Michael Billington, Dutta described Stumped as “a caprice, a shared dream” – blimey; that’s a suitably Beckettish/Pinteresque summary indeed. “Imagine Waiting for Godot crossed with The Dumb Waiter in a cricketing context and you get the general idea,” Billington added, for those of us on the wrong side of the cerebral nuance wicket. Ah, Stumped should be fascinating, then! However, I can’t see myself being alone in the far-flung boundaries of apperception even after seeing the play.

David Woodhead’s set (a simple bench in front of a beautifully lit pastoral scene within a gold picture frame) is gorgeous, and the set-up itself reasonably clear: Beckett and Pinter are waiting their turns on a cricket pitch in the Cotswolds; Beckett is in charge of keeping score, and Pinter is fiddling around with his pads and fussing over a sprained ankle. 

The pair fill their time waiting their turn in the stumps/waiting for the bar to open (waiting: geddit?) by playing their own little game of conversational banter tennis, laden with all the illogical syntax, heavy pauses, witty asides, highbrow nonsense and grandiose absurdity one might expect. They’re hoping that, after the match has ended, a character called Doggo (Doggo: geddit?) is supposed to pick them up and transport them home, to Oxford, or London. But who is Doggo, and where is home, and how long will they have to wait for? Hm, clever? I dunno – probably.

The actors carrying our leading men along are pitch perfect in their roles: Stephen Tompkinson as the idiosyncratic, acerbic maverick Beckett, and Andrew Lancel as judicious, punctilious Pinter; the affable chemistry between them is palpable, and much of the script is lovely. But don’t expect to learn anything satisfying, or insightful or humane about the personalities behind the caricatures; the non-drama essentially seems to pivot around one long, drawn-out in-joke with a punchline that only serious Beckett/Pinter experts will really get, leaving less intellectual interlopers stumped.