Are there words which are more apt to create a sense of disappointment in a theatregoer than “Due to the indisposition of (insert name of star), the role of (lead character) will be played by (unknown understudy)”? If there are, I know not what they are.

Yet, why is this? Audiences come to see a play, surely? Or perhaps that is what they should be educated to do. If they come to see a “star” then it will always be a lotto – actors are human and are not always able to perform. And, of course, a star should not struggle on and deliver a below par performance if they are ill – they should let the understudy go on. The whole point of professional theatre is that the show will always go on to the proper standard; understudies are cast carefully and can do that which is required of them. As Ethel Merman exhorts: Let’s go on with the show.

In practice, of course, understudies, excellent ones anyway, are often more skilled than those they cover. This is because they inevitably have to do more than just play one role. Excellent understudies are what makes professional theatre work. They are the unsung heroes of the theatrical world.

This was a point brought home with devastating effectiveness at the matinee performance of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming today. With great seriousness, and a little guilt, the usher intoned that John Simm was indisposed, and that his part would be played by John Hastings. A piece of paper was slipped into every patron’s hand confirming this fact. Some patrons rushed to the box office to exchange their tickets (what success they had I know not); others simply cursed and moved forward into the auditorium.

Still others, me included, opened the programme to see just who this John Hastings was. I will return to see Simm in the role (hopefully) but can say, with unreserved certainty, that I doubt very much that Simm, however good he may be, could be better in the role of the sinister, sexy and sarcastic Lenny than Hastings was today. It was an electric, unfussy, completely focussed performance of great conviction, verve and insinuating horror. A star turn by the understudy. They happen all the time, actually, but seldom go noticed (except possibly in musicals).

The enormity of Hastings’ achievement (twofold: removing any thought of the missing Simm and making the character blindingly good) is a credit to Jamie Lloyd who directs this 50th Anniversary production of The Homecoming. Seriously, the boards of the National and the Donmar must be wondering why they did not give Lloyd a chance at running their companies – his work at Trafalgar Studios has been consistently better than any work in any of the curated theatres in London. This revival of Pinter’s second big full-length play success is simply another example of Lloyd’s versatility, command of genre and muscular theatricality.

Unlike the 50th Anniversary production of Arthur Miller’s seminal Death Of A Salesman on Broadway a few years ago, Lloyd has not attempted, in any way, to recreate the original production. No. This is an entirely new, vigorous and unrelenting production. Don’t expect trademark Pinter pauses here. Lloyd finds a different way to propel the narrative, focus the audience’s attention, and sharply make Pinter’s thrilling work soar.

And it all works. Spectacularly well.

Central to the production is the design – set, light and sound – which provides a texture, a reference point, a sense of complete synchronicity which helps the play generate its highs. Working with longtime colleague, Soutra Gilmour, and Richard Howell (Lighting) and George Dennis (Sound), Lloyd establishes a fascinating vista on which the Pinter intrigue can play out.

The play is firmly set in the dark shadows of 1960s London. Crime, squalor and misogyny is everywhere. Gilmour achieves a sense of modernity as well as period by her careful stage setting: a kind of over-arching tunnel effect, which suggests any number of arches in London, places where crime and guile might be in serious play. Within that structure, she creates what seems to be the outline of a television set, or is it a boxing ring? – some blending of both perhaps. Either way, the sense of watching some sort of gladiatorial contest play out in a surreal or abstract way is perfectly achieved.

Single light bulbs hang from the ceiling, immediately crating a sense of menace. The first image, of Hastings’ tall, lean but Joker-like, viciously smiling maniac Lenny, lit by the lightbulb and a red wash of light, symbolising blood and murderous intent, is chilling, and sets the tone for all that follows. The rhythm of the language – from intensely vile and shocking to genteelly ironic and reflective – is reflected in the way Howell lights the set and uses great swathes of darkness to achieve slippery appearances and sudden moments of menace. It’s marvellously evocative.

The sound is integral. From the distant sounds of London life and police car sirens whirling by, to the fractious atmospheric noise as scenes reach climaxes and images are burnt into the mind – the sound accentuates, underlines, ripens the images – never overpowers or distorts. It’s all perfectly, splendidly judged.

The central family – a father, his brother, his three sons – are all old guard Soho types; they don’t live there, but their dubious professions are practised there. The red floor which serves as the living room of their North London Home suggests that blood has built their fortunes, such as they are. The single lounge chair, the single piece of sideboard furniture, the single stool…all these suggest a simple life, but one built on order, patriarchal ruthlessness and submission. The production and its genius design elements set up the actors perfectly; it would take some effort for actors to miss the mark here.

Lloyd’s eclectic and perfectly cast group of performers take full advantage of the assistance the production and its design provide. They grasp the play by all of its horns and ride hard, negotiating the difficult reversals and confounding contradictions of the narrative with deft understanding, ensuring the journey is wild, extreme and, occasionally, truly shocking.

No one is unequal to the task here. Ron Cook is in career-best form as the hideous probable-Paedophile father, Max, (his casual reference to bathing his sons is truly sin-crawling) who tries to rule his nest of vipers with savage cruelty. Keith Allen is terrific as the effete uncle (his yellow and black knitted cardigan vest is a perfect touch) who drives cars and hoards secrets.

Gary Kemp, as the son who got away, is fastidious on his intellectual side, but as he re-acquaints himself with the male members of his family, you see the decay burst through the veneer. John Macmillan is terrific as the youngest and slowest of the clan, the ravages of boxing having blunted his mental acuity. And Hastings completed the triumvirate of sons as Lenny, the soulless, vicious thug whose blood is charged with brutality and indifferent violence.

Into this curiously stoked testosterone furnace comes Gemma Chan’s Ruth, wife to Kemp’s Teddy and mother to Max’s unseen and unknown grandchildren, who coolly accompanies Teddy on his homecoming. Chan is extraordinary. With subtle but undeniable power, she turns the tables on the bag of fighting feral cats that is her husband’s family and shows them exactly who is boss. There is a remarkable moment when, apart from the gathered, somewhat slavering men, she completes her seduction/takeover of them all, merely by crossing and uncrossing her legs and casually mentioning her underwear. It’s as thrilling to watch as it is revolting to contemplate.

First rate theatre in every way. Another significant achievement for Jamie Lloyd and hats off to John Hastings.

Five stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.