With blisteringly well crafted characters and dialogue, The Birthday Party was Hackney-born Harold Pinter’s 2nd play, written in 1957 when he was a young jobbing actor and written in myriad dressing rooms; an experience which proved vital to his pioneering style of playwriting. The Birthday Party, whilst it wasn’t a commercial success until much later, closing after just eight performances when it was first premièred, time has shown it to be a work of sheer quality and one Pinter’s greatest, and most discussed, achievements.
As with most, if not all his works, it is filled with intrigue, ambiguity, mystery, humour, menace and tragedy, and you find yourself hanging on each character’s every word and intonation in order to fathom what the hell is going on. Just when you think you’re about to join up the dots the clues take on another meaning, the magnifying glass becomes cloudy, the paper trail disappears, and you find yourself trying to rewind the past scenes with an entirely different scenario in mind. That’s why Pinter is so frustratingly addictive. You could see The Birthday Party a dozen times and still have a new take on it.
Having been lucky enough to catch Dame Eileen Atkins in the Lindsay Posner production of The Birthday Party at the Duchess Theatre in 2005 (the same year that Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature), when she delivered a mesmerising performance as past-it seaside boarding house owner Meg, it’s been long enough for me to consider a new take on both that role and the play as a whole. With Zoë Wanamaker stepping into Atkins’ shoes, direction from Ian Rickson (former Artistic Director of Royal Court Theatre), and a cast including Toby Jones and Stephen Mangan, we were promised a compelling production.
Jones is brilliantly cast as Stanley, the grubby lodger whom the landlady clearly has a shine for in more ways than one; a strange mix of maternal affection and cringe-worthy middle-aged desperation underlying her interest in when he will rise for his uninspiring breakfast of cornflakes and fried bread. I found myself feeling more sympathetic towards Wanamker’s Meg than I did with Atkins, and with a script so open to interpretation it’s fascinating to see how two pillars of theatre bring their own unique charisma to the party (pardon the pun). The other interesting angle is that Wanamaker played the role of Meg’s flirty neighbour Lulu in the 1970s, here superbly played by Pearl Mackie.
With a set designed by Quay Brothers, all the action takes place in Meg and husband Petey’s dining-come-living space, and the tired, peeling wallpaper tells us all we need to know about their way of life, while Meg occasionally pops her head through the serving hatch connected to the kitchen in order to irritate her husband with the same pointless enquiries day in, day out. Music by film soundtrack maestro Stephen Warbeck draws us further into the grim, strangely tense atmosphere, and our curiosity is firmly piqued when Petey, whose day job is managing deckchairs on the beach, announces that two men have just booked a room – an odd occurrence when you consider that no other guests have stayed in the year or more since Stanley checked in.
The suited two gentleman, Goldberg (Mangan) and his Irishman sidekick McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) are obviously looking for Stanley, who doesn’t want to be found. Is he on the run from something? And are the two men gangsters or policeman? The big car Meg has spotted outside could suggest either, while their aggressive attitude towards him when they are alone is abruptly halted whenever the simple, infatuated landlady appears, thrilled by Mr Goldberg’s suggestion to throw a birthday party for Stanley that very evening, despite Stan protesting that it isn’t even his birthday.
Mangan, besides his convincing chemistry with Mackie, has a spectacular handle on Pinter’s dark comedy, quick-fire interrogative speeches and lyrical reminiscences, and shows Goldberg to be the most sinister character of all, whilst delighting us with his schizophrenic changes in manner and tone. When McCann is sent to buy the Scotch (a bottle of Irish for himself of course), and the bottles are lined up on the sideboard, the party is bound to reveal much about Meg’s visitors, with a dose of sexual assault thrown in for good measure. Let’s just say, Stanley doesn’t make it down for breakfast the next morning, but I’m jolly glad I made it down from Bath in order to see this splendid revival at the theatre bearing Pinter’s name.
The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14 April 2018. For more information and tickets please visit the website.