Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 14 April 2018
The Birthday Party is 50 years old. It opened to catastrophic reviews which the creators never entirely lived down. Now a thoroughly established classic, revived at the theatre named after its author, it is a play about an increasingly distant time and lost, post-war ways of living.
However, its exploration of oppression and invisible, all-powerful structures remains disturbing current. It is also, like much of Pinter’s work, very funny.
Ian Rickson, who directs, has built up a powerful Pinter CV with productions of Old Times and Betrayal at the Harold Pinter Theatre, and The Hothouse at the National. He lines up a dream cast for The Birthday Party, and the audience is rewarded with a succession of delicious performances.
Zoe Wanamaker, an actor who has been at the top of her profession for 35 years while, perhaps mercifully, escaping full-blow fame, is the emotional heart of the play as landlady Meg Boles. She is probably damaged, possibly not a landlady at all, silly and deluded, yet also vulnerable and touching.
Equally vulnerable, but for different reasons is her lodger Stanley, played with complete commitment by the endlessly watchable Tony Jones. His history and status are uncertain, shifting throughout the play, until we possess no more information about him than we did at the start, but he is defined by his sexually tense relationships with both Meg and next-door neighbour Lulu (a breezy Pearl Mackie), never defined, but illicit and, towards, Lulu, violent. These scenes of unspoken, escalating tension play out in a meticulously detailed late 1950s seaside front room, in just the right state of slight disrepair, designed by the Quay Brothers.
The Birthday Party is best known for the mysterious duo, Goldberg and McCann, who insinuate themselves as boarding house guests with a mission, for reasons never explained, to torture and kidnap Stanley. Stephen Mangan’s Goldberg, full of false bonhomie and ever-changing stories about his Jewish family background, is an overbearing tour de force. Meanwhile the Irish McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) seems to be undergoing his own quiet breakdown. He is not the only one. Stanley is left physically unable to speak, after a night in the pair’s company, before they bundle him away. Meg is in complete denial of reality. It is left to her husband Petey (Peter Wight, in a piece perfect casting) to smooth over the night of hidden, grim violence that has apparently taken place by carefully pretending nothing has happened, and going back to reading the paper.
The play is a famous exercise in unspoken menace, but it is much more than that. While intimidation of those who do not fit in, without ever knowing why, seems an unfortunately current theme, Pinter cannot resist playing with language, launching into surreal interrogation scenes (“What about the Albigensian heresy?”), playing out precise, hilarious scenes of spousal miscommunication, and dancing around the nature of the relationship between Meg and Stanley, as the two play games over breakfast without apparently knowing why. Pinter plays games with the audience too, leaving them in increasingly doubt over the boundaries between fantasy and reality in world where facts refuse to stay still. The sheer quality writing makes this play still gripping and audacious, 50 years on. Rickson’s excellent production demonstrates, without a shadow of a doubt, why The Birthday Party deserves its classic status.