The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre review ****

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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.

 

 

 

Frozen at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ****

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Frozen

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 8th March 2018

I see the Theatre Royal Haymarket is up for sale. Or rather a 70 year odd lease from the Crown Estate, a pernickety landlord, but one who has preserved the beautiful Nash terraces around Regents Park, and is slowing upgrading the built environment along Regent Street which looks a lot less sh*tty than it did 30 years ago.

I would love to buy it but I guess 20 quid won’t cut it. I assume that one of the big West End theatre companies, ATG, NIMAX or Delfont Mackintosh, will get its hands on it. I hope the new owners don’t tamper with the repertoire too much though I guess the family wouldn’t be selling up if they were minting it. A London home for that part of the RSC’s output which doesn’t get taken to the Barbican, and an opportunity for established directors and big name actors to tackle slightly more challenging work. Like Albee’s Goat last year (The Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****), the less successful revival of Venus in Fur and now Bryony Lavery’s challenging Frozen. In years gone by we’ve had some Bond, Beckett, Shakespeare and Stoppard. Looking forward we have the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg bowling up in all their splendour and a French/English Tartuffe.

TRH, along with the Harold Pinter Theatre just round the corner, (ATG, and hosting the transfer of the the NT production of Nina Raine’s Consent from 18th May with a new cast), the Wyndham’s (Delfont Mackintosh) and the Garrick (NIMAX) at the bottom of Charing Cross Road, as well as the Duke of York’s (ATG) and Noel Coward (Delfont Mackintosh) next door on St Martin’s Lane, are pretty much all you need in term of “proper” theatre in the West End, including most successful transfers from the subsidised sector. Maybe the Playhouse (ATG) and the Gielgud (Delfont Mackintosh) as well.

The Grade 1 listed Regency TRH though is my favourite. The stuccoed front elevation looks like the real deal with its beautiful portico with six elegant Corinthian columns. The theatre was designed by none other than John Nash and dates from 1821 having replaced the previous incumbent which was built in 1720. It acquired its royal patent in 1776 joining its namesake in Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House. We were lucky enough to see Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg with Simon Russell Beale in 2015, at the Hampstead Theatre, not here, which tells the fascinating story of the TRH’s founding.

The bars in the TRH don’t look like an afterthought, loos are adequate and legroom is very good throughout. The Tourist has found plenty of lovely seats, from the 900 or so total, to suit his needs here, something he can’t necessarily say about the other theatres mentioned above. Outside of the balcony, the seats are comfy and in everything bar the very back of the stalls, and one or two by the wall in the dress circle, sight-lines are very good. The space is airy enough to accommodate the gold-leaf plastered on every surface of the beautifully maintained neo-classical interior, and the blue upholstery creates a much more balanced aesthetic when compared to bog-standard red.

So any theatre buyers reading this, by which I mean buyers of theatres, not tickets, I would snap up the TRH, however onerous the lease clauses.

What about Frozen I hear you ask. I will resist the urge to make the customary joke about kids getting a little bit confused by the absence of Queen Else belting out Let It Go. For Frozen, as I am sure you know, deals with a serial killer, Ralph played by Jason Watkins ,who sexually assaults and murders Rhona, the 10 year old daughter of Nancy, played here by Suranne Jones. Our speaking cast is completed by Nina Sosanya who plays Agnetha, the American psychiatrist who studies the case. The play essentially asks whether those who commit such crimes are born “evil” and whether they can, in any way, be forgiven.

So it is strong stuff and director Jonathan Munby and designer Paul Wills don’t pull any punches. Ms Lavery’s play was lauded when it first appeared in 1998 at the Birmingham Rep and garnered awards at the NT in 2002 and on Broadway in 2004. It hasn’t popped up again in London, perhaps not a surprise given the sIt is very well researched and emotionally powerful as you would expect though it does come over as a little calculated, with the Agnetha character slightly forced. When it is good though, it is very, very good. It is constructed initially from short monologues, later moving to dialogue between Agnetha and Ralph as she studies him, a meeting between Agnetha and Nancy and finally a meeting in prison between Nancy and Ralph himself where she offers forgiveness.

None of this would work if the audience were not totally convinced by Ralph. It probably isn’t any surprise that Jason Watkins delivered. I don’t mean to suggest that this will have been an easy role for him to inhabit, just that his TV performance as the teacher Christopher Jeffries who was wrongly accused of murder, suggested to me that his technique might prove suited. I was not however prepared for just how good he is in this. With his flattened West Midlands vowels, his false pride in his “logistical” skills, his pedantic explanation of events and his extreme temper he seemed to me to be the embodiment of the “banality of evil”. He is chilling, yes, undeniably odd, but also believably humdrum and, on the surface, quite affable. Detail after detail, his description of the van he uses to abduct his victims, the way he engages them in conversation, the appalling scene where he is displaying his paedophile videotapes, the explosions of anger in prison, leave the audience revulsed, of course, but compelled to watch more.

It is hard for Suranne Jones to match this. The play probably works better in a much smaller space. Director, and the design team, understandably want to fill the TRH stage, conjuring up projections of brain scans, assorted “frozen” images, ghostly images of Rhonda, and the like, wheeling props on and off with each scene change, as well as some unsubtle soundscapes. This all proves a little too bold I think, and Ms Jones has the most difficulty in projecting the incomprehension and grief that consumes Nancy for over twenty years, out into the audience. It is a bit easier for Nina Sosanya to highlight Agnetha’s contention that Ralph’s behaviour reflects his damaged neurological make-up, given much of this is delivered in the form of imagined scientific lectures. She also has some opportunity to show lighter moments, though we learn later on that she too is grieving over her own loss.

So no doubt this is a very good play, sympathetically delivered by a fine trio of actors. The direction might be a little heavy handed, and the space a little cavernous for what is an intense, episodic chamber piece, but it is well worth seeing. Particularly if you snap up some of the cheaper seats on the day. Just make sure everyone in your party is up to speed on the content.