Theatre Review: The Homecoming

Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 9 April
Words by Melissa Blease

Toxic masculinity, bullying behaviour, misogyny, pervy blokes and a female character whose lines/personality/behaviour seem to have been written by a man who loathes women even though he rarely actually met one but when he did, he earned himself several restraining orders. If you’re looking for a lighthearted night out at the theatre, The Homecoming most definitely isn’t it. 

For sure, it’s a stellar cast, bringing Keith Allen in the role of domineering, bullying septuagenarian and miserable mouthy misanthrope Max together with Ian Bartholomew as his morally ambiguous brother Sam, Mathew Horne as his oleaginous, conniving middle son Lenny and Geoffrey Lumb as his dim barbarian youngest progeny Joey. The queasily sinister quartet live together in imperfect harmony in their stiflingly grim London home until Max’s eldest son Teddy (Sam Alexander) and his weird wife Ruth (Shanaya Rafaat) arrive fresh from Venice before heading back to their home in the US for a stopover; at this point, the fun that never happened before their arrival really ends.

Sam Alexander as Teddy, Mathew Horne as Lenny and Ian Bartholomew as Sam – © Manuel Harlan

Nobel Prizewinning British playwright/director Harold Pinter’s attitude to women is a longstanding source of debate. Some see in his work a fetishistic exploitation of female sexuality, while others regard him as a cryptic feminist celebrating women’s strength and resilience. Whatever your stance, it can’t be denied that Pinter – who died in 2008 at the age of 78 –  was one of the most influential modern British dramatists, with a writing career that spanned more than 50 years and included perennial classics including the chaotic, deliciously confusing The Birthday Party and The Dumbwaiter (which provided the inspiration for Martin McDonagh’s joyfully dark 2008 film In Bruges) in his back catalogue. But almost six decades after Pinter wrote what’s probably his bleakest, weirdest and arguably most grotesque ‘comedy of menace’ of all, one can’t help asking the question… do we really need to revisit it yet again?

Basically, Max and his crazy, seedy family seem to suggest that Teddy’s wife abandons her three kids in America and stays on to work for and with the malevolent males as a prostitute – and she seems to concur with the plan. Seem? Seems? By the time any kind of denouement is attempted, we’re still not really sure where we’re at; despite lashings and lashings of fast-paced dialogue which very sketchily sketches out the relationship dynamics that keep this super-dysfunctional family ‘together’, the characters’ motives are too confused to make much sense of what’s actually going on, and the whole set up too hyperreal to make us actually care about any of them. 

That stellar cast, however, are faultless in doing their very best with the job in hand as weird power struggles rage on and a claustrophobic air of total psychosis builds. But other than offering a fly on the wall perspective of a horrific, twisted family reunion (and if you were that fly on the wall, you’d be hoping that the person in charge of the swatter spots you by the middle of Act One)… what’s the point?

If theatre is in need of turning a fresh spotlight on screwed-up perspectives around women that are #AllToo relevant today, David Mamet’s Oleanna has recently been there and done that. If you’re a fan of absurdist art that’s purposely without purpose, several Samuel Beckett revivals are hovering in the pipeline. If you’re in the mood for revisiting a challenging, provocative, compelling late 20th century drama that reinvigorates our perception of women, family roles and the notion of ‘coming home’, this isn’t it.

Main image: The Homecoming – Keith Allen as Max, Mathew Horne as Lenny, Geoffery Lumb as Joey – © Manuel Harlan

The Homecoming, Theatre Royal Bath, until 9 April;