It ran for under a week when first staged in London, but now Harold Pinter’s first full-length play, The Birthday Party is celebrating its 60th anniversary with a first-rate new production, directed by Ian Rickson, at the most appropriate of venues, the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End.
Stanley Webber is the only lodger at Meg and Petey Boles’s sleepy seaside boarding house. The unsettling arrival of two enigmatic strangers, Goldberg and McCann, disrupts the humdrum lives of the inhabitants and their friend Lula. Although their exact purpose is unclear it’s impossible to mistake their tone. They are agents of evil, and mundanity soon becomes a menace when a seemingly innocent birthday party for Stanley – despite his protests that it’s not, in fact, his birthday – turns into a disturbing nightmare. Truth and alliances shift in Pinter’s landmark play about the absurd terrors of the everyday.
This is a play which transformed the theatrical landscape and the new production is attentive to every word every nuance and every pause in the text, abruptly and convincingly switching from comedy – Meg, for instance, asks Stanley whether he liked her fried bread for breakfast to which the latter replies “it was succulent”, whereupon Meg says shocked, “you shouldn’t say that word to a woman!” – to a sense of mounting dread achieved by Pinter’s ingeniously disconcerting way with words so that everyday talk takes on a sinister note.
Pinter deliberately leaves out the information most writers would consider it essential to impart. Thus we never learn why Stanley, a former pianist, is holed up in a godforsaken guest house, on the South Coast, or why Goldberg and McCann, a pair of heavies, have come to terrify him out of his wits. If Pinter had revealed, the details, this would be just another workaday thriller. As it is the play taps into everyone’s secret primal fear of one day being found out and the abiding horrors of totalitarianism when a knock on the door by a couple of strangers can often be the prelude to torture and death. What’s remarkable is how Pinter’s voice and stylistics – the non-sequiturs, the banter that turn into bullying, the edgy jokes and disconcerting pauses – can be harnessed to such powerful effect.
With wallpaper peeling down the seams, the shadowy interior design by Quay Brothers conveys a strong atmosphere of sterility and decay.
But it is the sterling performances that make the production the best I have seen of the play. Toby Jones, in particular, is superb as the furtive Stanley, a man in retreat from himself and the world and when given a drum, he beats it like a baby, before lapsing into a demonic rage, managing to combine both rueful charm and sour condescension, and is admirable when he squares up to the sinister interlopers. Zoe Wanamaker, too, is particularly good as Meg catching her fussy flirtatiousness and poignancy, and in exchanging wistful glances with her husband, hints that Stanley whom she eagerly mothers, could serve as a surrogate to the son she never had. Stephen Mangan, equally commendable is riveting as the physically imposing Goldberg using his height as a weapon and threatening even when silent, while his smiling bonhomie conceals a profound insecurity. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor meanwhile, brings out perfectly the paranoia of his Irish sidekick. Peter Wight is sturdily reliable as Meg’s easygoing husband Petey and Pearl Mackie brings a degree of resistance to the role of the neighbour Lulu.
This is certainly a birthday party you will not forget in a hurry!
The Birthday Party
Showing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 1 April 2018
Box office 0844 871 7622Last modified: April 6, 2021