Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Theatre review: The Birthday Party

Paradoxically famous both for making Harold Pinter’s name as a playwright and for being a notorious flop when it was first produced – its only rave review being published after it had already closed early - The Birthday Party gets a birthday party of its own, as Pinter’s eponymous theatre hosts a 60th anniversary production from Ian Rickson. The setting, in a suitably shabby design by Quay Brothers and gloomy lighting by Hugh Vanstone, is the sitting room and kitchen of a boarding house in a seaside town where Petey (Peter Wight) is a deckchair attendant. His wife Meg (Zoë Wanamaker,) possibly in the early stages of dementia, runs the house and looks after the guest, serving up corn flakes with sour milk and burnt fried bread. This may explain why there’s only one guest – Stanley (Toby Jones) is a former concert pianist who’s lived there for the last year, barely leaving the house where Meg variously babies him and flirts with him.

This weird but cosy set-up is threatened by news that Petey has had an enquiry by two men who’d also like to take a room. Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) have a particular interest in the only other lodger.

I have a feeling that a different production of The Birthday Party was the first Pinter play I saw, so it’s hard to know really if this one is better, or if I just wasn’t yet tuned into his style, with its almost aggressive levels of vagueness, air of menace and resolute refusal to provide answers. We can be confident Goldberg and McCann are the bad guys, having been a part of Stanley’s past in some capacity and now returning to – bring him back? Punish him for leaving? Dull and dusty though it may be this is a life he’s willing to fight to stay in. The two men’s slow and insistent assault on him makes the placid Stanley break down into violence, and perhaps on another level this is a play about that mental breakdown, the characters metaphors for the competing forces trying to keep him stable or make him lose control.

There’s some interesting casting against type that stands out in Rickson’s production: Mangan usually plays the fool and seems to be relishing playing a character so sinister he stands out even in this odd setup. And it’s rare to see Zwanamaker play anything other than the sharpest person in the room, but she gets her teeth into her batty old lady and one of the more vulnerable people caught in the crossfire of men. Pinter’s work is known for a misogynistic streak but it is also possible here to see the modern perspective in the way young neighbour Lulu (Pearl Mackie) is objectified and sexually assaulted then dismissed – this kind of victim-blaming masculinity is part of what defines Goldberg as so frightening.

I don’t know if Pinter specified where the interval should go (I would imagine he did,) but the three-act structure makes its placement tricky: Here it comes after the first act, making the second half of the show much longer than the first and the ending feel a bit tiring. But the final act is the least eventful so I imagine putting the interval before it would also make the pacing problematic. This rather leisurely wrapping up means The Birthday Party is unlikely to ever become one of my favourite Pinter plays but this production certainly makes a strong case for it, both as a black comedy and as a puzzle that gives you clues to mull over but would never provide anything so straightforward as an answer.

The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter is booking until the 14th of April at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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