Reviewed by James Karas
Harold Pinter wrote The Birthday Party, his first full-length play, in 1957 and it was staged for the first time in 1958. Thus the current revival at the London theatre named after him can properly be classified as a bow to the sixtieth anniversary of The Birthday Party.
I can’t resist the temptation to refer to the reception the play got when it was produced at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958. The critic for The Daily Telegraph opined that The Birthday Party is “one of those plays in which an author wallows in symbols and revels in obscurity” He then tried to end his review on a happy note for Pinter: “Oh well, I can give him one word of cheer. He might have been a dramatic critic, condemned to sit through plays like this.”
Zoe Wanamaker and Toby Jones. Photo: Johan Persson
Harold Hobson gave the play and Pinter a resoundingly positive review in the Sunday Times and stated that “Deliberately, I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying that The Birthday Party....and Pinter, on the evidence of his work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.”
The current production directed by Ian Rickson with a superb ensemble of actors confirms Hobson’s opinion not that any confirmation is needed.
The Birthday Party is theatre of the opaque or the absurd. Nothing is what it seems at first blush or on final consideration. Meg (Zoe Wanamaker) and her husband Petey (Peter Wight) are a conventional couple living in a boarding house in some seaside area. They have a boarder called Stanley (Toby Jones) who is unshaven, unkempt and erratic and decidedly of uncertain provenance. He says he was a former concert pianist but he could just as well be a homeless bum.
Two men come to stay in the boarding house but they are quite inexplicable. In well-tailored suits, apparently well-mannered, they accuse Stanley of betraying the organization.
There is menace lurking at every turn of the play and constant jockeying for power and dominance. The two men, Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) exert some real violence, they engage in blind man’s bluff and the pervasive feeling is that of fear, menace and uncertainty.
Stephen Mangan, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Toby Jones. Photo: Joan Persson
We are not sure if anything that the characters say is true or if they are recollecting facts or fantasizing about the past.
A woman called Lulu (Pearl Mackie) appears and we are never sure what her role is in relation to the characters.
Petey seems to be quite sane. He arranges the deck chairs on the beach and there is no suggestion that he is nuts. There is a birthday party of sorts but Petey does not stay for it. As for the sanity of the others, we can never be sure.
The set by Quay Brothers is the realistic eating area of a kitchen with a table, chairs and a sofa.
Rickson and the fine cast capture all the ambiguities, shifting realities and underlying menaces and fears of the play superbly.
The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter continues until April 14 2018 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, England. www.atgtickets.com. Box office: 0844-871 7627.