A Witty and Intelligent Absurdist Comedy: ‘Stumped’ Review

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Image Credit: Pamela Raith

★★★✰✰

This tale of two playwrights imagines Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, lifelong friends with a shared passion for cricket, both waiting to bat for the Gaieties somewhere deep in the Cotswolds on a summer’s day in 1964. Written by Shomit Dutta, also a cricketing aficionado who played for the Gaieties himself alongside Pinter, it’s an amusing and intelligent absurdist comedy that premiered at Lord’s and is now completing its run at the Hampstead Theatre. David Woodhead’s set design quite literally frames the seated characters in a pastel portrait reminiscent of a Monet, with the trill of birdsong and scattered cricketing paraphernalia situating it firmly in the English countryside. 

The first act of the play is almost exclusively comprised of witty conversational tennis between the two men, with humorous cricketing jokes often peppered with barely veiled innuendo, and a rather indulgent tableau of English stereotypes; predictably featuring an entire scene about tea and digestive biscuits. 

This 70-minute portrayal of pastoral whimsy reads like a narrative from a bygone era, lacking any critique or deeper nuance. It appears strikingly out of step with the current zeitgeist, especially in light of the recent Equity in Cricket report declaring the game “racist, sexist, and elitist”. That isn’t to say, though, that it is not clever or enjoyable, with smart jokes driving the play along at pace and atmospheric lighting (by Howard Hudson) moving the scenes from a bright summer’s day to an increasingly eerie and tense night.

Dutta, a professional classicist, drew inspiration for the play from The Frogs by Aristophanes, which similarly imagines a conversation between the dramatists Euripedes and Aeschylus. But whilst The Frogs uses this framework to investigate the political and moral landscape of its time, Dutta doesn’t use his characters or their work to examine anything larger than themselves. 

Instead, Stumped explores the differences between Beckett and Pinter’s personalities, finding its humor in their divergence. The characters are drawn expertly by Dutta and played even more masterfully by Stephen Tompkinson (Beckett) and Andrew Lancel (Pinter). Beckett’s languid academic air contrasts with Pinter’s more serious countenance, and their original animosity morphs into a tender and touching friendship throughout the play; both hesitate to leave the other when faced with the choice of abandoning their friend to get home themselves.   

The incidental jazz, composed by Mark Aspinall, that soundtracks the scene changes is slightly incongruous with the setting of the play, but successfully adds to the liminal atmosphere created by director Guy Unsworth. It is this theme of liminality, of waiting, that ties the play together; the two men wait to bat, wait for a man called Doggo to drive them home (geddit?), and wait for a train. The cricketing call of ‘wait’, typically shouted by the batsman instructing his partner not to run, also features as an ongoing motif.

As anyone with even a passing knowledge of Beckett and Pinter can infer, the meat of the play hinges on its references to The Dumbwaiter and Waiting for Godot. Whilst cleverly done, the audience is also left waiting for some sort of reveal that never arrives; mysterious phones ring, objects appear from nowhere, and a long dream sequence all occur with no explanation. It culminates in the feeling that Stumped is all reference and no substance.

But this is perhaps the point. Dutta commented that the play was intended to be a ‘comic caprice, a shared dream’, and he is undeniably successful in his aim. For fans of either cricket or drama, and especially both, this humorous and smart play makes for a thoroughly entertaining evening. 

Words by Mairéad Zielinski


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