The drama unfolds in a Margate or Bognor boarding house, artfully characterised by art director Arthur Laidlaw with threadbare carpet, horsehair armchair and 50s beach loungers stacked ready for a sunny day. Meg and Peter have a reclusive lodger, Stanley, on the dole and surely on the run from himself, whom Meg takes under her wing. Goldberg and McCann, Jewish and Irish respectively, turn up ostensibly looking for rooms, and insist on celebrating Stanley’s birthday with a party. Stanley, a stranger to kind gestures, smells a rat – not without cause.
Pinter’s world here is one where there is no specific exterior authority and no overriding morality. The only value system seems to be that imposed by the threatening pair who invade it. Their target Stanley, having unwisely stuck his neck out in his twitting of Meg about coming death and retribution, soon finds his teasing rebound upon him in the persons of his twin nemeses.
It’s a measure of the quality of this superlative production that the scene in Act 2 identified by directors Jake Lancaster and Muj Hameed as the crux of the thing, where Goldberg and McCann hammer the hapless Stanley with breakneck questions and accusations, leaving him all but mute with shock for the rest of the play, instantly points up a clear political reference. These torturers – the intensity of the acting leaves no doubt that’s what they are – stand plausibly for their ilk in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR in the decade prior to 1958, and of course for their grim successors of subsequent decades.
That scene was electric. Yet the play begins so quietly with Meg (beautifully played by Glesni Ann Euros, always stooping, taking little steps and smiling broadly but suggesting a moral void behind that big grin) dishing out Cornflakes to the grouchy Stanley (Rory Fazan, excellent) and her Mr Bystander husband Petey (Luke Gormley). The chit-chat, as often with Pinter, is a fusing of cliché and pointed phrase. These folk communicate little and are largely lost in their own world. When Goldberg (brain, a smooth-sliding, Kipling- and Old Testament-quoting adder in the grass) and McCann (brawn, simmering with suppressed violence) irrupt into this domestic pond, everything changes. In a trice they achieve a moral and physical ascendancy over Stanley who is borne away at the end to some unspeakable future.
Barney White expertly turns McCann's early, slightly bumbling comic persona into the unbending enforcer of later on. As for Will Hatcher as Goldberg: well, he produces a tour-de-force. Fluent movement, easy gesture, a tone of voice switching on a sixpence from wheedling banter to frightening rage – all pitch-perfect. This is an actor to watch out for on the professional stage.
As is becoming the norm, neither programme nor cast list was to be had. But no matter: this week in Oxford, this show is where you have to be.