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Review – Professional – Hope Street Theatre

Playwright Oliver Back (12×8 and Sheep) cites The Dumb Waiter as inspiration for his new play ‘Professional’. Pinter’s early classic enjoyed quite a rash of revivals during the great theatre closure of 2020/21 due to its compact scale and intimate nature, so it’s refreshing to find a new piece that alludes to rather than retells it.

In Back’s play the pair of hired hit men are transformed into Harry and Martin (played by Lee Burnitt and Liam Powell-Berry) and a riff on Pinter’s cloudy narrative is given the full ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ treatment. Our antiheroes skulk in their anonymous Nuneaton hotel room, waiting for the call to action, but in this tale there is no mystery made about their occupation or their back-stories.

It’s as if we’ve stepped out of the deserted basement kitchen into a more comfortable but no less claustrophobic space, where the two characters are able to explore more of their own motivation rather than simply musing over the confusing behaviour of the people pulling their strings. Harry is cool, calm and collected – every bit the professional – whilst the younger Martin paces the room like a caged tiger, uncomfortable with silence and filling it with a torrent of words.

Burnitt oozes self assurance and moulds much of Harry’s personality with wordless gesture. Powell-Berry meanwhile gives a tour-de-force performance as Martin, carrying the main weight of the complex dialogue and delivering it with tremendous physicality. Emma Turner’s direction times every pregnant pause and every explosion of energy to perfection.

As with the work that inspired it, Professional has elements of Beckett in the taut writing that almost suspends time in a locked room setting, as its inhabitants wrestle with the tedium of their lives. It also continues themes explored in Back’s other recent plays which, too, built their tension in a one room environments. The dialogue also has a feel of Jez Butterworth’s gritty brilliance about it.

There is no dumb waiter in this set to bring an endless stream of orders from without. Instead we wait until the closing scenes, when the delivery that brings the denouement arrives via room service courtesy of Shannon, played by Faye McCutcheon. While Pinter drops the curtain on his ending leaving it ticking like an unexploded bomb, Back plays out the fate of his characters in a brutal closing scene. Admittedly the gradual unravelling of this resolution does rob the piece of some potential cliff-hanging chill factor, but it certainly ties up the loose ends.

Oliver Back continues to show tremendous skill in putting words on a page that can’t fail to create intensity on the stage.

Professional is at Hope Street Theatre until 19th January and is sold out.

Star rating: 4½ stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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