Tag Archives: Harold Pinter Theatre

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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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Harold Pinter Theatre

The room is set and the bar is fully stocked so brace yourself for one of the most vicious battles ever staged – we’re all going to George and Martha’s, and it’s going to be a very bumpy night! Edward Albee’s 1962 play, revived at the Harold Pinter Theatre, has lost none of its capacity to shock as two couples trade unendurably bitter barbs at an academic after-party. Its a scathing presentation of long marriage, staled and sharpened by years of frustrated ambition, disappointment and a genuine desire to cause pain makes for uncomfortable but electrifying viewing in James Macdonald’s new version.

One night after a welcome event for new Faculty members, Nick and Honey are asked to the home of George, Associate Professor in the History Department, and his wife Martha who happens to be the university President’s daughter. Already partially sozzled and well-past midnight, these semi-strangers engage in reserved conversation, but as the drinks flow all too freely, the façade is shattered as Martha’s alcoholism and George’s years of battering turn into a malevolent battle of one-upmanship, sweeping the young newbies into their terrible game. As the endless night rolls on, the claws come out, truths are told and illusions irrevocably shattered.

Academic life is always a fascinating area to examine – a group of people thrown together sometimes for decades in an enforced hierarchy allowing egos to collide and under constant pressure to perform, their future dependant on their continued ability to direct and influence their area of study. No wonder then that many writers have attempted to unpick the feuds and foibles of this close community, from Henrik Ibsen who focuses on the competition for academic promotion and publication in Hedda Gabler to David Lodge’s series of comedy novel that show university life and the partner swapping whirlwind of conferences.

Albee’s approach combines these to examine not just the bullish scramble for position among male academics George and Nick who are instantly wary of one another, but opens out its far-reaching effect on their ‘civilian’ wives Martha and Honey – with Martha representing years of coming second to the pursuit of intellectual thought in both the eyes of her husband and, crucially, her father. So this is also a play about the nature of relationships between people coming from different perspectives who want different things.

The reference to Hedda Gabler then becomes crucial, and anyone who has seen the superb Ivo van Hove version at the National will see the complementarities between that play and this story of George and Martha. Hedda and Martha are women trapped by societal convention into marriages that will never make them happy, but neither can exist in isolation – they need the conflict, the chance to flirt, driven by the energy of the combustible nature of their relationships and the chance to exert their power over others, meddling with lives for fun. Had Hedda’s story not turned out as it did, had she stayed frustratingly married to Tesman for 20 years, it is not inconceivable that cruel, alcoholic and raging Martha would be the result.

While it may be difficult for many to shift their thoughts from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the well-known film adaptation, Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill successfully banish all thoughts of earlier incarnations with a fresh and deadly take on the warring couple. Hill’s George is seemingly a weakling, constantly belittled and worn down by his wife’s endless scorn, while Martha is brutal, unrelenting and acid tongued, but with Staunton’s incredible touch for showing the more broken inner life of someone who in lesser hands would be all-monster.

To reference another famous pairing, they have a touch of the future Macbeths; imagine they had never killed Duncan and assumed his throne. Had Macbeth refused his lady’s entreaties and remained the Thane of Glamis, all that childless ambition would turn upon itself, the once close and happy couple would be torn to shreds by her distaste for her husband’s cowardice, and his quiet resentment of her aversion to his scruples. This is what Hill and Staunton give us in their layered and cultivated performance.

Staunton has had an impressive couple of years with Gypsy catapulting her to a new level of popular acclaim and award success, building on an already varied and successful career. As Martha, she captures the many conflicting aspects of the character – the downtrodden wife and the sexy vamp, curdled femininity and masculine aggression – which constantly shifts the audience perspective on who this woman really is. We never fully sympathise with anyone, all in their own way venal and calculating, but Staunton shows us clearly how this Martha came to be. And it’s a gripping performance as she slithers from self-pity to sexual provocation, manipulating the affections of her guests, but they can’t turn their back for instant because her bitter recriminations are as sharp as a carving knife in their back.

Hill’s George is also a world away from Richard Burton’s more forceful performance in what felt more like a marriage of equals. Here, instead, the milder George has endured years of abuse for his lack of advancement beyond Associate Professor, something he seems resigned to and while occasionally hitting back with remarks on Martha’s age, it’s clear she has more power to hurt him. So, instead in the first two acts we see George’s continual degradation at Martha’s hand – and even to some extent fighting a losing battle with Nick – and while they seem to have played all these games before, tonight they go too far and something in George snaps which Hill convincingly portrays as a man pushed to extremes and reaching his limit of endurance. What follows feels like a restoration in George’s masculinity and position as Hill calmly navigates the aftermath of an explosive night.

The visitors make for an equally interesting pairing, not wide-eyed with shock at their host’s behaviour but faintly embarrassed and harbouring troubles of their own. Luke Treadaway’s Nick begins the evening with the perfect life – handsome, intelligent, beautiful wife and new job with everything to aim for and as he talks awkwardly with George, Treadaway offers the first hints of his deep ambition and growing arrogance. During the night Nick’s initial discomfort is swept aside by an inability to leave until his has fully charmed his host (or more particularly the hostess) and got them to believe in his fictional veneer. But again Martha is too canny for him and when given a opportunity to go home or stay and advance his career by indulging the President’s daughter, Nick makes his choice and seals his fate. Treadaway shows us Nick trying to cling on to his smooth and decent image but there are clear hints that his future is now out of his hands.

Likewise Imogen Poots’s syrupy Honey is almost a cliché when she first arrives, overly charming, innocent and rather oblivious to what’s going on. But she and Nick have their own less than moral history as the truth about their marriage and early relationship comes out. Poots has less stage time than the other characters but it’s enough to see Honey become wilful, angry with her husband for revealing their secrets and resentful of his lecturing. As they stagger home at dawn Treadaway and Poots show us a young couple facing a possible future as George and Martha, will their already cracked relationship lead them down the same path or has the night before given them enough warning to change their ways?

Tom Pye’s one-room set is a fairly traditional-looking academic home in the 60s full of books, objects and soft furnishings which give the cast plenty of places to move around and add variety to a long evening, and is simple enough not to take anything away from the verbal sparring. However with Ivo van Hove showing us the power of Ibsen and Miller without the clutter it would be interesting to see what it could look like denuded of its normal period setting, but that’s for another day.

This is a very wordy play and across three acts in three hours it makes for uncomfortable viewing. Macdonald’s direction is crisp, creating a sense of claustrophobia and increased loss of control as the evening wears on, which make each wince-inducing volley both so difficult to watch and simultaneously fascinating, as the tension ramps up and we wait to see how far the characters will really go. And in its display of animalistic mauling – Martha at one point is told to wipe the blood from her mouth – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has lost none of its ability to genuinely shock. Just don’t try to drink along!

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 27th May. Tickets start from £15 but there are ATG booking fees to be aware of and there is a daily TIX ticket lottery. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Relative Values – The Harold Pinter Theatre

The British are still obsessed with class. However, this has changed in the last sixty years and whether you believe society is now driven by education, fame or money there’s still a national interest in thinking about where you belong and how this means you should behave. Noel Coward’s Relative Values was written on the cusp of these changes, where the old three-class system evolved into something else. Peppered with references to post-war social upheaval, it accurately presaged the shift of power from the old aristocratic order to a more celebrity-driven world.

Set in a Kentish mansion in 1951, Felicity, Dowager Countess of Marshwood is reluctantly preparing for the imminent arrival of her son the Earl and his latest fiancée, Hollywood actress Miranda Frayle, after a whirl-wind romance. But her plans are thrown into disarray when her ladies maid hands-in her notice after twenty-years of service, because, unbeknownst to her mistress, Miranda is Moxy’s long-lost sister. And if that wasn’t trying enough, Miranda’s former fiancé and fellow Hollywood star Don Lucas arrives to win her back.

This play explores ideas of class and duty, largely supporting the idea that people are much happier in their place. To Felicity a Hollywood actress is completely unsuitable to replace her as the Countess of Marshwood, whilst Moxy cannot pretend to be anything other than a ladies maid. This exemplifies Coward’s own position in 1951 – somewhere between the traditions of the past and the encroaching new wave of plays depicting realistic working-class life. By chance this is geographically represented in the current West End; up the road from the Harold Pinter theatre is Blithe Spirit on Shaftesbury Avenue, or head south across the river to A Taste of Honey, at the National. Relative Values then sits between the drawing-room comedies of the past and the kitchen-sinks of the future.

Like Helen in A Taste of Honey, the inhabitants and guests of Marshwood House learn that trying to break free of your class only leads to unhappiness and everyone usually ends up where they started. But having said all that, this is still a great dramatic comedy, full of the trademark humour but with all of these fascinating themes and social issues bubbling beneath the surface – in many ways it’s one of Coward’s most socially relevant plays, enhanced here by the use of newsreels about daily life in Britain tying scenes together and reminding us of life beyond the elite.

The performances too are extremely appealing; Patricia Hodge is really very good as the Dowager Countess driving between snobbish disregard for her younger successor, and a fiercely feudal need to protect the household. She relies on the advice and counsel of her servants, and throughout this play goes to considerable lengths to preserve their happiness and continued service. This is also Rory Bremner’s theatrical debut as the Jeeves-like butler Creswell, considerably smarter than his employers and hiding his working-class accent beneath a polished and verbose veneer (is this a hint that brains rather than breeding will define society in the future?). Caroline Quentin was sick when I went so Moxy was played very well by her understudy Jody Elen Machin. It’s quite an emotional role, almost dramatic at times so to produce a very accomplished performance at short notice was impressive.

This production has transferred from Bath and it’s important that regional theatre is able to feed into London as easily as West End shows tour the UK. Overall this is well worth seeing, a great cast, lovely set and ample Coward humour. For those looking for a little more substance, there’s plenty beneath the surface to reference wider social changes. Perhaps its key accomplishment is accurately foreseeing a changing societal culture where status based on class is replaced by one worshipping celebrity.

Relative Values is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 21 June, tickets start at £20.


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