The Birthday Party review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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A stunning cast powers this slightly staid Pinter revival

A decade on from his death, Harold Pinter remains pretty much incomparable as a playwright: his cryptic, menacing works have spawned all sorts of offspring – David Lynch, Simon Stephens – but there is nobody really ‘like’ him. He’s a household name, but his plays are strange and difficult and get revived less than you might think. So it’s always a treat when one of his unnerving dramas does make it to the West End. Doubly so when it’s got a cast as mouthwatering as that of this revival of 1957’s landmark ‘The Birthday Party’. Nonetheless, while the writing remains bracing, there’s something naggingly conservative about Ian Rickson’s meticulous period revival.

‘The Birthday Party’ is set in a faded seaside boarding house, in which retired pianist Stanley (Toby Jones) is content to live a repetitive existence lodging with owners Meg (Zoë Wanamaker) and Petey (Peter Wight). One day, two besuited men turn up: Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor). They claim to know Stanley, though how is made never clear. They resolve to throw him a birthday party. Stanley professes that the men must leave, that he doesn’t know them, that it’s not his birthday, and that this isn’t even a boarding house. Nonetheless, the party occurs, sucking in Meg’s young friend, the blowsy, chipper Lulu (Pearl Mackie). It starts creepily; it ends in cracked horror.

Much remains cryptic, either open to interpretation or ominously floating beyond the periphery of comprehension. But in 2018 it’s also striking the extent to which it’s clearly about male power hierarchies and issues of consent. The most electric scenes come when Jones, Mangan and Vaughan-Lawlor verbally duel for control of the room. Clearly outmatched, the showstealing Jones is nervy and audacious, ramming home the slimmest of advantages, initially confounding the surly McCann until Goldberg – comic actor Mangan is genuinely quite terrifying – steps in to finally break him. Pinter’s feminist credentials – or lack thereof – have long been a matter of debate, but certainly the means by which Mackie’s likeable Lulu becomes collateral in the masculine powerplay has a queasy resonance in the post-Weinstein era.

It is, in many ways, a fine production, and a superb showcase for Jones and Mangan in particular. The rhythms of the language are key to Pinter, and Rickson – who has directed Pinter himself – is an old hand at that. There is also some fantastically disturbing – if underused – sound design from Simon Baker. Nonetheless, accepting that it’s a brilliant play with a brilliant cast, there’s something a bit unadventurous about it all: after the swaggering amphetamine roar of Jamie Lloyd’s recent revival of ‘The Homecoming’, I was disappointed that Rickson has opted for a straight-up period production with a note of the museum to it. This is a tough, radical play, and while precision is important, it feels like it’s been handled with kid gloves.


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