HISTORY records that the first London premiere of a Harold Pinter play, The Birthday Party, was dismissed by critics as “half-gibberish”, “puzzling” and “a baffling mixture” en route to commercial disaster.

While Pinter’s 1965 family puzzle The Homecoming may well engender similar bewildered responses, Theatre Royal artistic director Damian Cruden is adamant that when the dust settles, Pinter will be recognised as the greatest English playwright of the 20th Century, a writer on a par with his American equivalent Arthur Miller.

Without taking up residence on the nearest fence, your reviewer can understand both viewpoints, probably more than he understood the play in truth. Then again, that is no crime, because Pinter leaves so many questions unanswered – or possibilities open ended – that even Columbo would be left scratching his head.

The insidious jazz of Miles Davis snakes around an old and sinister house in 1960s’ North London, where unfinished alterations testify to the absence of a woman’s touch (after the death of family matriarch Jessie). Here live the late Jessie’s gnarled, bitter, cuckolded husband, Max (Paul Shelley); his brother, gay, buttoned-up chauffeur Sam (Robert Pickavance); and two of Max’s three sons, failed pimp Lenny (Sam Hazeldine) and failed boxer Joey (Jack Ashton).

Eldest son and mum’s favourite Teddy (Ian Harris) makes his prodigal return after six years of teaching philosophy in America, accompanied by his ex-model wife (Suzy Cooper, so dangerously hot she would shock her panto devotees). Now the Pinter fun and mind games really start, as layer upon layer is peeled back, only for more layers to build up as macho menace meets female wiles on a Dawn Allsopp set whose warped perspective matches Pinter’s union of grim reality and twisted fantasy.

Written in 1965 with not a hint of the peace-and-love Sixties to come, The Homecoming is a nasty study of male inadequacy and female/feminist empowerment by a writer whose bleak-humoured loathing of humanity runs deeper still than John Osborne in Look Back In Anger. Even the cigars are rotten.

Should you see it – and you should – the play will rattle around your cranium long after the curtain falls on the devastating performance by Cruden’s cast in one of the best productions of his long directorship. Already he has given York a memorable series of Miller plays and now he makes a superb case for his defence of Pinter.

* The Homecoming, York Theatre Royal, until June 20. Box office: 01904 623568.