Thursday 18 January 2018

The Birthday Party

Harold Pinter Theatre, London
13th January, 2018, matinee
*Please note that this was a preview performance.

Stan, don't let them tell you what to do’.

Having seen only a handful of productions, I still feel new to Pinter but ever more fascinated with his work. From the ‘high concept’ productions such as Jamie Lloyd’s The Homecoming or Nick Bagnall’s Betrayal, to Sean Mathias’ No Man’s Land which felt like a big homage to the original production, to Ian Rickson’s deep textual exploration of Old Times and now Pinter’s first major play, The Birthday Party. He and Pinter are a winning combination in my opinion. Whereas Rickson and his stellar cast may not reinvent the play for its 60th anniversary, they do ratify its status as an oblique classic which has kept me thinking about the play since.

Writing out a synopsis for the play could easily give a misleading impression of this comedy of menace. A seaside boarding house; one elusive and shabby guest, Stanley (Toby Jones); two further mysterious men that arrive looking for him. But The Birthday Party is far from concrete. The play seems to be working on another, subconscious, level. It seems to be a play partly about the push and pull between resisting the temptation of conformity, the individual’s fight for autonomy, and the longing nostalgia for childhood dependence.

The two guests, Goldberg (Nat? Simey? Benny?) and McCann, are brought to life by Stephen Mangan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor. Having written about Jez Butterworth pretty extensively elsewhere, I’m mainly coming at Pinter’s play through the optic of Butterworth’s echoes back to his mentor. In The Winterling, two hitmen (Wally and Patsy) pay a visit to their former colleague West which made me wonder if the same was true of Goldberg and McCann. The casting of Mangan, I imagine, gives Goldberg a more comic edge, but this does not undermine his menace either. Indeed, the half-rhyme in ‘You’re the leper, Webber’ seems to typify the character’s humour offset by an unsettling tone. He and Vaughan-Lawlor’s relentless barrage of tautological twists and turns and tormenting stichomythia make for a smooth but cruel double act. We get no definitive answers as to who they are, why they’re there and where they are taking Stanley. Pinter leaves the door open on a multitude of questions: Why do Goldberg and McCann make their first entrance through the back door? Is Petey complicit in their task? Meg has such delusions of grandeur about herself and her seemingly unappealing boarding house. So who exactly is she? Why do Stanley and Goldberg speak in idioms so much (does this connect them, after all Meg misinterprets a lot of Stanley’s idioms)? Why do Stanley and McCann whistle the same tune – is it a code? Why have they added Goldberg’s (very funny) line ‘What a lovely staircase’ at the end of act one?

Toby Jones is an actor who makes bold and clear performance choices: the wild beating of the drum that intimidates Meg, anguished screams from Goldberg and McCann’s torments, his inarticulacy in the third act. He makes Stanley both pathetic and threatening. The character reminded me of the overweight, somewhat pitiable, cuckolded Ned who Jones played in Butterworth’s Parlour Song (also directed by Ian Rickson, at the Almeida). In fact, Stanley’s story of being a concert pianist isn’t a huge leap from Ned painting himself as the chivalrous knight in shining armour in his own fairy tale of finding a present for his wife in magical olde-worlde Gloucester. Zoë Wanamaker conveys Meg’s naivety and mollycoddling of Stanley with humour and poignancy, and Peter Wight as Petey nicely plays in contrast to that. He is more grounded, that is until the end when Goldberg and McCann perhaps fill him with fear. Wight and Wanamaker play out the banal, cyclic rhythms of married life wonderfully, prompting me to think that these scenes which bookend the play perhaps anticipate Edward Albee’s The American Dream.

Hugh Vanstone’s lighting lets shadows loom large in the dark corners of the Quay Brothers’ shabby boarding house design, paper peeling off the walls and dust covering the sideboard. Through a setting and concept that is perhaps theatrically familiar, The Birthday Party breaks into a world of subconscious and unease. But as I said I haven’t seen the play before. I look forward to reading reviews by people who are au fait with the play.

The Birthday Party runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14th April.

Zoë Wanamaker as Meg and Toby Jones as Stanley in Pinter's The Birthday Party. Photo credit: Johan Persson

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