I went into The Birthday Party blind – a Pinter virgin as it were – which is pretty outrageous considering I study English and drama. If you are too, here is some context: The play was written with no expectation that it would be performed, but on 28th April 1958 it was ‘warmly received’ at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge. It then moved to the Lyric Hammersmith in London and was subsequently taken down within the week. The Manchester Guardian wrote that the characters ‘speak in non sequiturs, half-gibberish and lunatic ravings.’ It wasn’t until Harold Hobson’s review in The Sunday Times (the weekend after it had closed) that the play’s reputation was rescued. Now fast forward sixty years and turn your attention to the aptly named Harold Pinter Theatre – formerly the Comedy Theatre – for Ian Rickson’s version. The legend goes that Pinter was complaining about not having a theatre named after him and Tom Stoppard (the joker) said that Pinter could always change his name to ‘Harold Comedy.’
Stephen Mangan is clean-cut and genuinely terrifying as Nat Goldberg and Toby Jones reminds me of a very dishevelled Chris Evans playing Stanley Webber. It’s unclear if Stanley is actually being tortured by Nat and this is what makes it so ominous. Zoe Wanamaker as Meg is tragic and vulnerable but also brings a lot of the humour to the play, such as her constant badgering of her husband Petey Boles (Peter Wight), asking ‘is it nice?’ about his cornflakes, the paper and her very exciting fried bread. Throughout the performance Goldberg and McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) ask (and force) people to sit down constantly and turn off the lights in the room for Meg’s birthday speech, shining a solitary torch at Stanley, exposing their power over the characters in an absurd, disconcerting way.
The set is incredibly detailed, when a window opens you can see the bricks of the next house along and the sunlight streaming in feels so genuine. Inside, the room exudes dismality, the place is rundown with the wallpaper curling and dusty old floorboards. Eerie background noises and music seems to creep up on you accompanying this feeling of impending doom.
The Birthday Party does very much stand strong sixty years later, it’s bloody scary, working as a cryptic thriller for me. The so called ‘lunatic ravings’ (they probably mean Goldberg: ‘I’d tip my hat to the toddlers, I’d give a helping hand to a couple of stray dogs’ – what?) only add to its power and mystery.
The question is: Is it really Stanley’s birthday?
Words, Dora Hemming
Pics, Johan Persson