The Birthday Party
Harold Pinter Theatre
by Harold Pinter
Directed by Ian Rickson
Reviewer: Tom Baker
Most of Harold Pinter’s plays feel as though they ought to be performed in the smallest possible space. His Comedies of Menace benefit from the discomforting feeling of actors barely having room to share a stage, the sense of threat being impossible to get away from. Even the stage of the 796-seat theatre which bears his name, decked out in the mouldering finery of a down-at-heel seaside boarding house, is a bit too expansive. The Birthday Party is one of Pinter’s most-performed plays and one of his most nightmarish in its close-quarters nastiness.
As with later works like The Caretaker and No Man’s Land, Pinter’s second produced play begins by establishing a sort-of-cosy status quo before an external force arrives and hoists the sinister undercurrent beneath the perceived domesticity to the surface. Here the set up involves Stanley (Toby Jones), tenant of a boarding house run by the good-hearted but simple-minded Mrs Boles (Zoe Wanamaker). Their combative, quasi-Oedipal relationship provides enough fuel for the drama of the first act, with only brief appearances by Mr Boles (Peter Wright) and neighbour Lulu (Pearl Mackie, late of Doctor Who).
Stanley is the only lodger of Meg and Petey, and the matriarch of the house both dotes on him in a motherly way and hints at a far-less-innocent of their relationship. Jones is superb as the dishevelled Stanley, both of the vaguely purgatorial boarding house and not, resenting and cruelly denouncing the older Mrs Boles’s infantilisation and flirtation with an equal level of disgust. Still, he appears to have no intention of leaving the milieu he considers so below him. He boasts that before his stay, he had been a concert pianist of some note.
But the arrival of Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and associate McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawler), the aforementioned external forces, are enough to have him heading for the hills. If the Harold Pinter Theatre’s stage ever manages to feel suitably, uncomfortably small, it’s whenever sitcom star Mangan is on it. He dominates it, as the character demands, with his alpha-male strutting, billowing three-piece suit, and his voice is pitched several decibels louder than anybody else’s. His Goldberg is the highlight of this revival, the sitcom regular playing resolutely against type as he sweeps both Mrs Boles and Lulu of their feet, charming Mr Boles and somehow managing to put the fear of god into Stanley in a setting that does not feel particularly blessed with any kind of divine presence. Quite the opposite, if anything.
Goldberg and McCann’s circular, non-sequitur-laden interrogations — a key example of the disintegration of language in Pinter’s work, as well as of the slipperiness of the truth which emerges for all the characters at one point or another — are yet not enough to cow Stanley, the pathetic ruffian resolute in wanting to remain in the Boles’s boarding house. Unfortunately for him, these men encountered by Petey on the beach and referred to his house are equally as dedicated to dragging him back to the real world, kicking and screaming if needs be.
High and wide, the stage resembles the proscenium of New York theatres more than a typical West End venue, when really the Steptoe-alike squalid setting really demands something like Shirley Jackson’s description of Hill House, architecture which is ever so slightly off with its angles and accoutrements, so as to induce a sense of eerie unease in those inhabiting (or watching) it. As it is, the Quay Brothers’ design is both too large and too clean, the suggestions of peeling wallpaper and lightly dusted cabinets not quite matching up to Stanley’s description of the house as a pigsty. The Old Vic’s 2016 production of The Caretaker, meanwhile, was absolutely filthy, the stage design seemingly taking cues from Extreme Hoarders. The Birthday Party calls for a similar level of deprivation, to match the quiet desperation of the characters.
If there are any further criticisms to be made of director Ian Rickson’s production, besides the customary intentional awkwardness of Pinter’s dialogue in the actor’s mouths in the early exchanges before finding their footing, they are to be directed at the text itself. The Birthday Party was notoriously panned upon its West End debut, with a solitary positive review from Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times credited with rescuing the play’s reputation and, possibly, Pinter’s career. It’s certainly a fine play, and that hostile reaction was unwarranted but perhaps expected for something so aggressively odd and, well, aggressive. However, even with the most glittering of all-star casts, it cannot help but lose some momentum in the final act, especially after the startling climax which calls for a complete blackout and is illuminated solely with torchlight upon the actors’ faces.
For all that the falling action struggles to maintain the elusive terror and fever dream unreality that builds across the front half of the play, The Birthday Party remains at least a foundational work, one ably performed to an audience who still have the ability to emerge from the theatre confused and disquieted, sixty years after it was written.
Runs until: April 14th 2018 at the Harold Pinter Theatre