Paul T Davies reviews Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party at Harold Pinter Theatre finding it “funny and fascinating”.
The Birthday Party
Harold Pinter Theatre.
19 January 2018
In a clapped out boarding house on the coast of England, it’s Stanley’s birthday. Well, his landlady, Meg, has decided it’s his birthday, therefore it is fact and he will have a party. Into the house come Goldberg and McCann, looking for Stanley, bringing an air of threat and menace into the proceedings. What is the connection between them? Is there a connection? What is Stanley hiding from? Are the cornflakes nice? Pinter’s classic play is minted fresh in this perfectly cast production.
The standard and tone is set in the excellent opening breakfast scene. Zoë Wanamaker is superb as Meg, anxiously serving up cornflakes and burnt fried bread as if they are jewels made by her fair hands to her husband, Petey, the always excellent Peter Wight. Together they expertly portray a marriage in which everyday banality has provided a shell of security that keeps the outside world at bay. Wanamaker beautifully suggests that dementia may be the waves that are crashing around her. When told that two men have enquired about staying at the house, Meg repeats, proudly, that “this house is on the list”, though looking at the Quay Brothers’ design of crumbling grandeur, you wonder if it is a list of condemned property. Wight beautifully portrays his patience and protection of her.
Their only resident is Stanley, an outstanding performance from Toby Jones. In the pecking order, he knows his place is top of the burnt food chain, flirting and teasing Meg, bullying her, deferential to Petey, mysterious about his past. When the men arrive, his fear and arrogance is sharpened, and his performance from cocky, scruffy, layabout to a shaking, terrified almost mute mess in act three is convincingly portrayed. As Goldberg, Stephen Mangan gives another excellent performance, confident and seemingly friendly, but always threatening, and compellingly terrifying as he removes any mask of respectability. He is particularly outstanding in his Act Three speech, (“Look in my mouth”), when Goldberg becomes lost in the maze of his own warped rhetoric, and he is superbly matched by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann, subservient and threatening. They are an excellent double act of threat. Pearl Mackie makes the most of Pinter’s only under- written role in the play, that of next door neighbour Lulu, representing female sexuality and the abuse men target towards women. However, post party, when it is clear that offstage unwanted sex from Goldberg has happened, she provides Lulu with a clear dignity and strength.
It is in the lauded “Pinter pauses” that his work actually breathes, and in director Ian Rickson’s pitch perfect production, this is a play that breathes perfectly. And it is the play that is the star. Sixty years on, it remains steps ahead of its audience, losing none of its ability to astonish, disturb, confuse, and, above all, entertain. It matters little that it raises more questions than it answers, it is funny and fascinating. This excellent production of a true twentieth century classic will haunt you for days, maybe forever.