When Harold Pinter was preparing to play the patriarch and ex-butcher Max in a 2007 radio production of his 1965 masterpiece The Homecoming, he was asked how he would know if he’d nailed the part. “If you get it right, it’s a good pong,” he replied, “and if you don’t get it right, it’s a bad pong.” By that measure, Jamie Glover’s expert revival produces a most outstanding stink.
Keith Allen is Max, holding court from his armchair in the bleak north London house he shares with his younger sons – the shark-like pimp Lenny (Mathew Horne) and the dopey boxer Joey (Geoffrey Lumb) – and his ineffectual brother Sam (Ian Bartholomew). Into this corrosive existence strolls Max’s eldest child, the philosophy professor Teddy (Sam Alexander), back from the US to introduce his wife, Ruth (Shanaya Rafaat), to the family. “They’re not ogres,” he smiles.
Yet there is a warped fairytale element to Liz Ascroft’s spectacular set, its back wall decked out in morbid grey-green flock wallpaper that reaches into the heavens, making the house seem as tall and inescapable as Rapunzel’s tower. On to that vast space are thrown spidery Nosferatu-like shadows as characters climb or descend the staircase.
Within this imposing setting, Glover keeps the wickedly funny production finely calibrated on the level of gesture – a slight tilt or turn of the head is enough to transmit shockwaves, the eerie tableaux between scenes signalling how abruptly moods and allegiances can change.
Allen deftly negotiates Max’s handbrake turns from splenetic to sentimental, while Horne and Alexander spar elegantly as the rivals whose words flash like switchblades beneath their urbane facades. Bartholomew’s low-key tenacity as Sam makes the sustained macho tensions seem more equally matched than usual. Most surprisingly, Lumb brings a surly comic pathos to Joey, a role that can sometimes get lost in the shuffle.
As Ruth, who represents to the men not just the mystery of female autonomy but their horror of change, Rafaat projects an air of amused relish as she takes the family apart one by one. Joey may spend his days in demolition but for Ruth it’s a round-the-clock job.
• The Homecoming is at Theatre Royal, Bath, until 9 April, then touring.