The Birthday Party
Harold Pinter Theatre, 21st March 2018
Look into his eyes. look right into his eyes. Old Harold Pinter didn’t seem that menacing did he? But, as you well know, he created a whole genre of “comedy” presenting the violent and sinister which lurks below the everyday and which still resonates with playwrights today, And some.
The Birthday Party from 1957, which nearly sank without trace, when it came to the Lyric Hammersmith after initially going down well in Cambridge, was Pinter’s second play and first serious outing. (I wonder what I would have made of it had I been one of the handful, literally, of people who saw it in the week before Harold Hobson gave it a rave review in the Sunday Times, which rescued the play and launched Harold Pinter’s writing career.)
The setting and ambience, the parlour of a down-at-heel 1950s South coast seaside boarding house, and the story, revolving around a birthday party for the one and only guest, superficially couldn’t be any more banal, almost a parody of the Victorian drawing room plays still playing at the time and familiar to HP from his decade of rep acting stints. Indeed, for the first few minutes, as husband and wife owners, Meg and Petey Bowles, begin the day with a gentle comic interchange, you might be forgiven for thinking that is exactly what it is going to be. Later, the interrogation scenes, at least if you muted the actors, could have come straight out of an Agatha Christie whodunnit.
Things soon start to turn a bit weird when Stanley Webber, unemployed piano player, hauls himself downstairs and demands breakfast. Lulu, much younger, and one of Pinter’s more sexist female creations, pops in from next door. When the two strangers, Goldberg and McCann, turn up we finally enter seriously Pinteresque territory. What do they know and why are they come here? What do they want with Stanley? Are they really here to do him in? Little trips in time and place, reveals, reversals, people saying one thing and meaning another, and even then you doubt what they really think, banal language that seems to imply something more, malleable “facts”, threats, menaces, power games, bullying, sexual tension, sharp comedy, it’s all there. I will never get over the wonder of how Pinter could conjure up these places in his head. The language is the same as in the everyday world, all the attitudes, influences, attributes, behaviours are recognisable, but it is all a few degrees off centre. It is like Pinter swallowed a whole stack of cutting edge research on social psychology and spat it back out in dramatic form.
When it is acted and directed well it is riveting. As here. Ian Rickson, once again, shows he is a Pinter expert, as well as a McPherson, Butterworth, Ibsen, in fact anything you like, expert. He rendered a marvellous account of Albee’s Goat last year (The Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****) and, to cap it all, he even brings the magnificent music of Polly Jean Harvey to life. The Quay brothers design is a triumph of period detail even down to the bottles of Scotch, and one Irish, which fuel the tensions at the party. A marked contrast to Jamie Lloyd’s on-trend Homecoming from 2016, a hit mind you, from this hit or miss director. I see some proper reviewers have denigrated the “period piece” look of the production. I disagree. This makes the “action” all the more unnerving if you ask me.
Zoe Wannamaker is a memorable Meg, mothering Toby Jones’s puerile Stanley, despite his petulant rebuffs. Yet when he is threatened, by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s fraught McCann and Stephen Mangan’s intimidating Goldberg, he bites back. It is sometimes easy to forget just how good Toby Jones can be when the role fits him. This fits him. I have to say though that Stephen Mangan, who here seems to physically dominate the room, teeth gleaming, offers the best of the performances. The way he barks out, with utter certainty, the cliched “memories” from his childhood is perfect Pinter for me. The way words seem to say one thing but mean something completely different. There is an equivocation about Mangan’s Goldberg as if he is trying to convince himself, as much as those around him, of his real status. Peter Wright, (a revelatory Polonius in Robert Icke’s Hamlet), and Pearl Mackie have less to work with but you wouldn’t notice.
Can Stanley even play the piano? Is it actually a boarding house? Has McCann ever killed anyone? Who’s actually been to Maidenhead? Why can’t Meg sort out a decent breakfast? Was Goldberg actually an orphan? Is this really Stanley’s birthday? What are Goldberg and McCann’s real first names? Was Meg really so p*ssed she couldn’t remember Stanley seemingly attacking her at the party? Why doesn’t Stanley do a runner? Why does Petey pretend Stanley is still there? Are Meg and Petey really childless?
You see the problem is, you start questioning one thing, then another, then the whole thing unravels. And HP looking down on us, chuckling. After all he swore he once stayed in a place exactly like this, with one lonely lodger who lived there because he had “nowhere else to go”, which is about the saddest/funniest thing I reckon anyone could say.
All this before you get to the heavy symbolism which lies in the apparent Judaism and Catholicism of Goldberg and McCann, and their apparent authority over Stanley, though where this is derived from is never revealed. This is why HP saw this as one of his more explicitly “political” (small p) plays. Why gives some-one the right to exert power over another and why is the latter willing to accept? Basic social contract stuff punctuated by the smell of fried bread and whisky and the cries of seagulls. As Petey says at the end “Stan, don’t let them tell you want to do”. Remember HP refused to do National Service as a conscientious objector. Suspicious of all power. And he was an atheist despite his Jewish heritage.
The programme notes from Mark Taylor-Batty have a quote from Pinter which I had not heard before, probably because I am still a bit of an HP virgin. “A character on the stage who can present no convincing argument or information as to his past experience, his present behaviour or his aspirations, nor give a comprehensive analysis of his motives is as legitimate and as worthy of attention as one who, alarmingly, can do all of these things. The more acute the experience the less articulate its expression.” There you have it. Just as well HP was brutally articulate in explaining inarticulacy.
So why only 4 stars? Not because of the play, cast, direction or design. All top drawer. Simply that, thanks to my penny-pinching nature, we were a little too far back to really appreciate the production in a theatre which is a little too cosy at the back of the stalls. There are some plays where that wouldn’t matter. This isn’t one of them.