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.