The Birthday Party – Harold Pinter Theatre

The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre

High-profile productions of Pinter plays with an all-star cast have been a regular feature of the West End in the past few years. Jamie Lloyd gave interpretations of Pinter a shake-up with his stylised version of The Homecoming starring John Simm and Gemma Chan in 2015, and since then a hugely acclaimed version of No Man’s Land united Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in late 2016. Now, one of Pinter’s early controversial full-length plays, The Birthday Party has arrived at the theatre named after one of the twentieth-century’s most influential playwrights.

Yet, Pinter is not the easiest experience for an audience with his focus on abstract meanings and heightened realism that for the uninitiated can mean his work seems impenetrable. But, his plays last because they manage to do something still fairly unique in modern theatre, and while plot and character exist to an extent, Pinter eschews traditional ideas about narrative and instead wants to create a particular impression or feeling – predominantly a sense of sinister unease – that pervades his best work, with a sparse style that continues to draw actors and audiences alike.

The Birthday Party is set in a seaside boarding house run by Meg and Petey Boles (also a deckchair attendant), whose long-term lodger Stanley is their only guest. Claiming to be a pianist with offers to tour the world, Stanley’s place in the house is unclear, but happily settled. That is until strangers Goldberg and McCann arrive for one night, intruding on the birthday celebration Meg has innocently planned. But it’s not really Stanley’s birthday and suddenly his whole existence comes into question; just who is Stanley and what is he really doing in this quiet little town?

Ian Rickson’s assured and compelling new production positions Pinter’s work in a form of shabby realism, a dark little room from which the characters find it difficult to escape. Designed by the Quay Brothers, the Boles boarding house is an abyss in a world of sunshine, filled with dark wood and muted autumnal colours that belie the beautiful summer’s day referenced outside. And, interestingly, although all of the characters except Stanley commute into this warmer world or, through the occasional opening of doors and windows, try to draw the external freshness in with them, they only really exist in this drab chamber, as if permanently yoked to it, unable to escape to the better existence they crave beyond the walls.

As ever with Pinter the blurring of fantasy and reality is a common theme, and Rickson’s production is quite subtle in relaying the contrast between the two. Everything is played with deliberate realism to match the detailed everyday approach to the set and costumes, so the onus is placed on the audience to recognise the moments when characters contradict themselves and to judge what parts of the conversation are a dream or a lie. For example, at several points, we’re given similar bits of information about Stanley’s professional life and during each new conversation the extent of his achievement is scaled down forcing us to question which version is the truth. Rickson, underscores this with a sense of unease because we cannot be sure if Stanley consciously lies to the other characters or to himself, adding a valuable sense of instability to an already unpredictable play.

Pinter also likes to explore the consequences of forcing strangers into established worlds to consider the fragility of human structures and relationships. He does this in The Homecoming as Teddy brings his new wife Ruth into the family home, upsetting the routines and the very male balance that exists there. This also happens in No Man’s Land as Foster is upset when his master brings the garrulous Spooner into the house for a late-night drink that similarly alters their path. Here in The Birthday Party, Meg, Petey and Stanley have developed a similar form of domestic bliss that seems to suit them and although we’re not quite clear how innocent the arrangement is, it is clearly an established and comfortable one.

The arrival of Goldberg and McCann is well managed, and instantly distorts the calm and cosy atmosphere that existed before. The audience feels the shift as fussing about cornflakes and the local paper quickly gives way to more intense debates about identity and self-delusion, prompted by the arrival of these two sinister strangers. Importantly, throughout the remainder of the play, they feel like an alien presence, characters who don’t quite belong in this time and place, put there purposefully by Pinter to create a rupture between what has gone before and what is to come. So, while the play’s language is typically opaque, the overriding feeling of this production gives strong signals to the audience about what is happening which keeps you gripped.

Toby Jones is a fairly rare sight on the London stage these days but his ability to play quite diverse types serves him well as the shambolic and uncertain Stanley. With a raft of acclaimed roles in TV and film from projects as broad-ranging as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Witness for the Prosecution, The Detectorists and a First World War soldier in the excellent forthcoming adaptation of Journey’s End, Jones brings a complex and slightly shifty tone to the central role.

Initially, he strikes quite a sad and lonely figure, half dressed in pyjamas and oppressed by the poor-quality breakfast supplied by Meg. But very soon, Jones reveals an undercurrent of something darker as the morality of his relationship with Mrs Boles is called into question hinting at something more than perhaps her husband knows, which, later in the production evolves into something suggesting complicity between them – a peculiar ménage à trois in which Petey is equally content with the ‘arrangement’.

With the announcement of strangers arriving, Jones’s Stanley becomes rapidly agitated, as if unexpectedly caught out, eventually receding into watchful silence and a traumatic emotional turmoil as the party itself gets underway. It’s a skilled performance that offers layers of meaning and interpretation that never quite allows Stanley’s rather slippery identity to be pinned down, leaving you wondering whether he’s genuinely maligned or whether some dark deeds from another time have finally caught up with him.

As Meg Boles, Zoe Wannamaker has rarely been better, creating a slightly empty-headed domestically satisfied working-class woman who dreams of being the centre of attention without ever realising that she is actually the pivotal point in the household. Meg would be a frustrating woman to know, always stating the obvious, asking her husband to his face if he is there, and wanting to hear the news as he reads the paper.

Her relationship with Stanley is rather dubious, and Wannamaker ensures it never quite settles on the motherly or the romantic bringing that constant sense of unease or hint of inappropriateness to a seemingly innocent domestic world. The party itself gives her a chance to let loose some of the girlish glamour and enjoyment of male attention that are usually held in check beneath her pinny, but Wannamaker retains a sense of Meg’s innocence throughout, as if she’s in the world but not part of it, and cannot really see what’s happening under her own roof.

Stephan Mangan’s Goldberg and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann are a menacing double act that almost fully realises Pinter’s intentions for them as the catalyst for break-down and change, while at the same time making them distinctive individuals. Vaughan-Lawlor is particularly good at delivering much of the implied violence of the piece, and for much of the time he is the embodiment of physical threat. Simultaneously however, Vaughan-Lawlor brings shades of anxiety to the role of the former priest-turned-hard-man, using a latent nervous energy he reveals only to Goldberg and a peculiar need to tear newspapers into strips that seems to calm him.

Goldberg, by contrast, is the established crime boss who talks endlessly about family and respect for his heritage. He too has identity issues, referred to by several first names during the play, and there’s something of the Krays in the way he talks about protecting community. As a well-known comic actor, Mangan takes a more humorous approach to the interpretation of Goldberg and earns many of the evenings laughs with his well-timed delivery and judicious use of the infamous Pinter pause. There is room for a little more darkness in the portrayal however and at present this character seems to contrast most with the straighter interpretations of the other actors. Arguably, Goldberg is only incidentally funny and in fact means to be threatening, which is something Mangan has time to explore as the run continues.

There is a well-conceived small role for Pearl Mackie as neighbour Lulu whose purpose is to add an overtly sexual dimension  to the male / female interactions with her instant attraction to the much-older Goldberg. Played almost entirely as a fantasy figure, Lulu is there to cast light on the parallel bond with Stanley and Meg, and Mackie does well to match her accent to Wannamaker’s to give a nice consistency. Peter Wright, as the mostly silent Petey, must feel quite at home in this theatre having spent several recent months here in the West End transfer of Robert Icke’s Hamlet, and here he is an interestingly passive presence, a man who mostly abandons his home and allows events to occur unchallenged.

Setting this in the realistically depicted and familiar world of the seaside boarding house only adds to its distorting effect, and leaves the audience decidedly unsettled. Pinter is a difficult playwright to love and it has taken many attempts to start to understand why his work endures, but this exciting version of The Birthday Party makes Pinter’s appeal all the clearer – plot and character are only partly the point, it’s about the feeling it creates as you watch it. With press night still a few days away, Rickson’s production is already a tense and unnerving experience that utilises all the skills of its excellent cast to reinforce the oddity of one of Pinter’s most performed plays.

The Birthday Party is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14 April and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.     

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 350 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

5 responses to “The Birthday Party – Harold Pinter Theatre

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    I think you’re right about Pinter’s creating ‘a sense of sinister unease’ in his plays. It is, after all, what we’d expect of a man who was a fan of Kafka before the Czech writer was all the rage. I’m not sure, though, that this production has enough menace – though, of course, it’s still in previews so that could change. I’m a fan of Pinter so any production that’s not actually bad is worth seeing but this was a bit disappointing – partly, I expect, because the casting caused my expectations to be raised. This was one of my ‘must see’ productions so, as with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I booked a good gallery seat as soon as booking opened just to make sure I didn’t miss it. Unlike the Albee, though, this production didn’t make me keen to keep trying for a front row day seat at a later date.

    Recent London productions of Pinter have, with the exception of No Man’s Land, been a bit disappointing with Jamie Lloyd’s The Homecoming being too gimmicky (and Gemma Chan, frankly, out of her depth in a role that needs a towering performance) and The Caretaker slanted far too much towards the comedy talents of Timothy Spall (masking some fine understated work by Daniel Mays). The Hothouse, too, was underwhelming with a star cast but Simon Russell Beale rather out of his comfort zone as a rampant hetero; though that could just be because it’s not a great play. I suppose this was to be expected after a purple patch including Jonathan Pryce’s Davies and this theatre’s Betrayal and Old Times either side of the name change from the Comedy to the HPT. This latest production came across as underpowered – sometimes even literally with Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann nothing like the hard man I’m used to (for me, it should be a real shock when Goldberg attacks him physically but here it just looked ordinary). Zoe Wanamaker, as you hint, puts Meg’s pathetic romantic frustration rather than her more maternal (equally frustrated?) side to the fore. It’s a good performance – probably the best on show here – but I personally preferred Maggie Steed’s Meg at the Royal Exchange a few years ago. I’m afraid Stephen Mangan’s Goldberg was unconvincing (and, unless I’m imagining things, not yet quite in control of his lines). He was, as you say, rather low on menace, which doesn’t help, but the thing that really got me was the way he pronounced one of Goldberg’s alternative forenames ‘Simmy’ (rhyming with shimmy). Perhaps a Pinter expert can tell me if there’s a precedent for this but the script says Simey and every performance I’d heard before yesterday – including Pinter himself in the TV version – rhymes it with Limey. It may seem a small detail, and I don’t know if it’s the actor or the director’s fault, but if you know the play inexplicable alterations like this really jar. Another deviation from the norm was for Stanley to appear unbidden in the final scene. Every other time I’ve seen it he has been escorted – sometimes almost frog marched – by McCann. For what it’s worth (not much to some modern directors, it seems) the stage direction is “McCann goes to the door, left, and goes out. He ushers in Stanley..”. Again, a detail, but it does rather alter the extent to which Stanley is acting of his own volition by this stage. On the subject of Stanley, though, Toby Jones vies with Wanamaker for best performance but, again, I think a major facet of his character is understated in this production. The man is a petty but ruthless bully (this is clear from the script and from most performances I’ve seen) and this production presents him almost as pure victim. The sense that he is, in a way, also getting his come-uppance at the hands of altogether more accomplished bullies is almost entirely missing here.

    Sorry to go on so – I could bore for ever on Pinter – and for forgetting to start with how much, as usual, I enjoyed reading your take on the production. I wonder what the critics (particularly HP buff Billington) will make of it. On this trip I also saw Lady Windermere’s fan (looking forward to your piece on that) and Misalliance at the Orange Tree (worth a trip to Richmond if you have a spare evening and can get a ticket. Standing at £10 is, as at the Donmar, a good option when standing places are released. If you don’t have trouble standing the view is almost as good as the best seats).

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John, very interesting comment as usual and good to get the perspective of a proper Pinter expert. I’m certainly interested in the press reviews for this one over the next few days.

      I suppose we differ in that I’m looking for a way into Pinter (which is by no means easy!) and found some of the more recent productions more accessible than my earlier attempts. So Lloyd’s version of The Homecoming felt very alive to me in a way that Pinter never had before.

      I also saw The Hothouse (the excellent John Simm again) and Betrayal, both of which I enjoyed, but certainly agree that the Old Vic’s The Caretaker was too comic. I spent much of it wondering how much more fascinating it would be to make the lead a much younger man and create a different kind of masculine conflict between the characters?

      I do like to see experimentation, and in this version of The Birthday Party I enjoyed the attempts to position the characters slightly differently, and, having grown up in a seaside town, that sense of depression and under-investment felt very vivid. I suppose there are so many ways to interpret the play, but this production gave me a greater respect for Pinter’s craft than I had managed to glean before.

      Thanks for the other tips. I’m reviewing Lady Windermere for The Reviews Hub next week so my review will appear there instead. and I’ll looking forward to hearing about you next trip soon.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    Just to clarify – I’m not a ‘real Pinter expert’ or any other kind of expert. I just like his work enormously and will usually make a point of seeing any productions I can get to. Billington, though, is the genuine article – and I quite often come to very different conclusions from his; which, I suppose, shows how much I know!

    I’ll look for your Reviews Hub piece. Unfortunately, they don’t usually print reviews as comprehensive as those on your excellent blog. I had the extraordinary luck to find myself sitting next to Kathy Burke for my preview of LWF. We had a good chat – though, of course, she had to go backstage at the interval – and I have to say she was exactly as I expected: warm, unpretentious and engaging. I hope the critics enjoy the production as much as I did though I wonder if they’ll be disappointed by her relatively conventional approach. I loved her attitude – which was that it is the director’s job to serve the writer and the play, not vice versa.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Don’t be modest John, you certainly have a huge experience and understanding of theatre performance that make these discussions so interesting even if we feel differently about a show.

      And sounds as though you’ve had some privileged early access to the directorial vision of the next Wilde play and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how they have approached it.

  • John – National Theatre | Cultural Capital

    […] into someone’s else’s environment. From Pinter’s seaside boarding house in last week’s The Birthday Party designed by the Quay Brothers, to this sinister establishment in Gettysburg America, the […]

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