In a dank, Birmingham basement, two hitmen, Ben and Gus, wait with ever increasing boredom, frustration and anxiety for orders of their next job. After many muddled, trivial conversations about newspaper articles and the correct way to tell someone to “put the kettle on” they do receive orders, only not those they had hoped for: the dumb-waiter behind them lurches menacingly into life and requests ever more complicated dishes from them. A lingering fear regarding their purpose in the basement gradually surfaces, only made worse as the pair try unsuccessfully to appease the nameless authority above and argue over his or her identity. As the tension between the two increases the tone shifts from a bleak humour to something far more unsettling, culminating in an ending which leaves more questions than answers.
The small space and low lighting in The Print Room work particularly well with the play. The grubby, crumbling walls and one side of audience seating give the feeling of looking through a two way mirror onto a prisoner’s cell or a cruel psychological experiment. The performances, too, are well executed. Gus (Joe Armstrong) is fantastically talkative, idiotically forgetful and comically mundane in his delivery, while the more senior Ben (Clive Wood) watches, frustrated, cold and unhelpful, from his bed as his partner babbles on incessantly. We can feel the chaos waiting to erupt between the two characters: they are vastly different and certainly not well matched partners for each other.
Their personalities, however, are surprisingly gripping despite the little time available for development and the sluggish pace of the first half of the play allows for hilariously pointless individual conversations and crises. As the performance winds its way towards its conclusion, however, this rising tension becomes diluted amongst the raised voices and what we see created is an increasingly hurried performance. Altogether, the final crescendo as the dialogue between the two completely breaks down and their purpose in the basement is revealed, which on paper is enough to take a viewer totally by surprise, takes place in a split-second, leaving it feeling deflated and unsatisfying.
This performance of a true modern masterpiece, then, at times lacks the proper pacing for such a short show and to some might feel a bit unresolved. Glover, however, has paid close attention to his characters’ relationships, their back and forth is constructed so carefully, their tuts and huffs as they wander about their tiny room so perfectly executed that we feel we are watching them in a world totally of their own but, at the same time, unnervingly familiar.