Theatre: Brought to heel by a good pair of legs

For many people, The Homecoming is Harold Pinter’s masterpiece. Jamie Lloyd celebrates the play’s 50th birthday at Trafalgar Studios with a highly stylised and totally non-realistic production. The sparse set, the tableaux, the loud music and the blackouts increase the artificiality. Rich in irony and ambiguity, Pinter’s lethally colloquial script offers possibilities for many interpretations.

Max, an ex-criminal, lives with Sam, his brother, and two of his sons, Lenny, a violent pimp and Joey, a dumb boxer. Teddy, his eldest son, a Doctor of Philosophy, returns from America with his wife Ruth. The household immediately recognises her for what she is. Ruth, unhappy with the academic life, is quite prepared to be a poule de luxe in London and a surrogate mother to her husband’s family.

Always effortlessly superior, refusing to be intimidated, Ruth manoeuvres herself into a position where she is in complete control. Gemma Chan has the two major requisites for the role: she is enigmatic and she has a good pair of legs. The men are emasculated.

Ron Cook is in top form as the brutish, vindictive Max, who no longer frightens his sons, whom he quite obviously did not father and whom he abused when they were children. John Simm is very Pinteresque as the streetwise Lenny, who beats up old ladies and takes the mickey. Keith Allen is good casting for Uncle Sam, a prim chauffeur who knows a thing or two about Max’s late wife that Max doesn’t know.

The National Peking Opera Company, participating in the 2015 UK-China Cultural Exchange, paid a quick visit to Liverpool and London with an unforgettable performance of Warrior Women of Yang, a traditional, classical jingoistic spectacle, based on historical fact and offering a mixture of mime, singing, high-flown dialogue, acrobatics and brightly coloured tableaux.

The acting is highly stylised. The gestures and make-up are exaggerated. The first act is all talk and song. The second act is all battle and action. The entrances and exits are taken at a fast pace. So, too, are the somersaults and all the spinning and twirling. The voices are shrill. The falsetto solos are ear-piercing. The music – drums, wooden clappers, gongs and cymbals – constantly punctuate what is being said.

Robert Bolt is best remembered today for A Man for All Seasons (with Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More) and Lawrence of Arabia (with Peter O’Toole in the lead).

His first play, Flowering Cherry, produced in 1957, was a throwback to an era before the kitchen-sink dramas. Any commercial risk the play might have had was negated by the casting of Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson. The flowering cherry is a suburban tree that blossoms but bears no fruit. Mr Cherry, a failed insurance salesman and a suburban braggart, is unable to face reality. His whole life is built on lies; even his dream of moving to the country is a lie. Benjamin Whitrow’s production at Finborough Theatre confirms the play is well worth reviving.

If you are in the mood for something really silly during the festive season, Ben Hur performed by just four actors at Tricycle Theatre is good for a laugh.