Neil Dowden in north London
30 June 2023
Shomit Dutta’s debut play Stumped is based on the delightful conceit of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter bonding over their shared love of cricket while increasingly resembling characters in their own plays. Cricket played an important part in the lives of both writers: Beckett famously is the only Nobel Prize winner to be listed in Wisden (for twice playing for Trinity College Dublin against Northamptonshire), while Pinter was player, captain, then chairman of the theatre-connected Gaieties Cricket Club. The two men were friends in real life over many years, but Dutta’s absurdist comedy imagines them playing together in a match in the Cotswolds in the early 1960s on what turns into a disconcertingly sticky wicket.
Stephen Tompkinson and Andrew Lancel.
Photo credit: Pamela Raith
Stumped begins appropriately with a lengthy pause. We see Beckett and Pinter sitting at the boundary of the pitch anxiously waiting to go into bat. The padded-up, intense Beckett is scoring and chides Pinter – who is putting frozen peas on a sprained ankle – for not already having his pads on when they could be called into action any moment. We later see them rather worse for wear – both pissed, with Beckett sporting a bloody bandage on his forehead due to Pinter (now crippled by backache) hitting the ball straight at him in what has been a farcically disastrous match – by the village green as they wait in vain for a lift home. Finally, in desperation at being stranded in the middle of nowhere late at night, they find a deserted train station where they attempt to escape from their predicament.
Waiting is the name of the game here – as it is of course in Waiting for Godot and The Dumb Waiter. Cricket is the perfect setting for this as there tends to be a lot of hanging around – and sometimes even “nothing happens, twice”. The occasionally bickering banter of Beckett and Pinter is more like the companionable drifters Vladimir and Estragon than the suspicious hitmen Gus and Ben, though there is a hint of menace when they are blinded by the headlamps of an unknown driver or answer an unexpected phone call. The fact that in the second scene they are waiting by a tree for someone called “Doggo” – a teammate the hapless Pinter has caused to be run out – who doesn’t turn up heavily underscores the similarity.
Andrew Lancel and Stephen Tompkinson.
Photo credit: Pamela Raith
A classicist, Dutta – who personally knew Pinter through Gaieties CC of which he is now captain himself – inserts plenty of classical and Shakespearean allusions into the conversation of the two Nobel laureates in literature, as well as references to their own work and lives, and of course cricket. But the 70-minute Stumped is – as Dutta says in the programme – a “comic caprice”, which doesn’t delve very deeply into the masters’ art or biographies, with casual mentions of, for example, Buster Keaton starring in Film and Pinter’s first job as a touring actor.
In reality, the two had a mutual respect for each other’s work – with the older Beckett being a major influence on Pinter – and here we see them warm to each other after a somewhat tense start, helped by the disinhibiting effect of alcohol which indeed was the case when they first met on a night of boozy excess in Paris in 1961.
This slight, charming piece feels more like an extended sketch rather than a fully-fledged play. It was born out of an event co-curated by Dutta for the Happy Days Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, and was originally performed in a shorter version by Original Theatre as a digital stream from Lord’s Cricket Ground last year. This live stage production previously visited Bath and Cambridge before reaching Hampstead Theatre – so unlike the hapless protagonists, this entertaining show has had a good innings.
Guy Unsworth’s assured production is picture-framed in David Woodhead’s surreal design, in which a room with a bench has a small model in an alcove displaying alternately a cricket pavilion, a willow tree, and a station platform to indicate the shifting scenes. Howard Hudson’s lighting evokes the changing time of a long summer’s day into night, with Dominic Bilkey’s atmospheric sound conveying the noise of leather on willow in rural surroundings as well as passing trains, while Mark Aspinall adds a jaunty jazz score during scene changes.
There are two very engaging performances with both actors well and truly settled in the crease. The slightly gaunt, round-spectacled Stephen Tompkinson looks the part of Beckett, talking quietly but precisely with a diluted Dublin accent. His long-suffering patience and philosophical attitude is occasionally punctured by existential angst. Wearing dark, thick-framed glasses, Andrew Lancel’s stockier Pinter, speaking with a clipped tone, also more than passes muster. His more competitive manner suggests a younger man still wanting to prove himself against the best. Together, they make a winning partnership.