What is it about cricket that so fascinates many of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century? Stoppard, Ayckbourn, Rattigan, Harwood, Hare and Gray all demonstrated their fondness for the game. Perhaps more than any other sport there’s a leisurely unfolding narrative punctuated by moments of high drama which would appeal to writers. As well as the above list there was also Samuel Beckett (who actually has an entry in Wisden) and Harold Pinter who didn’t mince his words claiming that “Cricket is the greatest thing that God created on earth”. And it’s an imagined encounter between these two playwrights in an early 1960s pavilion in the Cotswolds that forms the backbone to Stumped, a deliberately punningly titled short play by Shomit Dutta – himself another aficionado.
Fittingly the piece begins with an extended pause, a famed theatrical conceit of both writers. It then proceeds with huge debts to the works of the pair, in particular The Dumb Waiter and Waiting For Godot. Both these plays focus on a pair of protagonists patiently waiting for something to happen and a high level of expectancy over the part each one is going to play in proceedings – rather like cricket itself. The arcane laws and rituals governing the sport are also redolent of the writer’s characters and indeed the philosophy of the two men themselves. Beckett ritualistically keeps the score while his younger contemporary Pinter nurses an injury with a bag of frozen peas (or as he pedantically reminds his companion, petit pois). They also chat about their latest projects – Beckett’s film, called not untypically Film, and Pinter’s as yet unnamed play which will become The Homecoming. Above all they fire goading ideas at each other and test each other’s patience as they await their turn to bat. In the second half they find themselves at night on the village green somewhat fruitlessly waiting again - this time for a lift from a mysterious teammate who may or may not have a grudge to bear.
I enjoyed the measured performances of Stephen Tompkinson as Beckett and Andrew Lancel as Pinter who do not so much inhabit their subjects as give us an impression of these literary figures at the height of their powers. Tompkinson particularly has some fun with an inebriated Beckett in the second half. David Woodhead’s slightly surreal set seems to reference Endgame – another play which focuses on two men trapped in a state of bleak existence. With that in mind I don’t think Dutta’s script quite worked in part two once the pair had been allowed to escape to a world outside and there was at least a notion that they could escape their fate. Had they being paying close attention to their own plays then they would have known that such an eventuality was highly improbable – especially as the man for whom they are waiting rejoices in the nickname of Doggo.
Stumped was filmed live from the home of English cricket – Lords - and was originally meant to be streamed on September 10th; national events, of course, intervened. It will now be available on demand from September 27th via the Original Theatre Company’s website