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Phil Willmott

Review: THE BIRTHDAY PARTY at the Harold Pinter Theatre

The Birthday PartyAny playwright whose first production is trashed by the critics can take comfort in the career of Harold Pinter.

When his play The Birthday Party was first produced in London in 1957, it got such bad reviews that it closed after a week. Never the less he kept writing in his uncompromising style - spare, elegantly precise dialogue, punctuated by pauses - until slowly and surely, by the time he died he was a national treasure and his every utterance was seized upon as if he were a god. You’ll notice he even has this West End theatre named after him.

Since that disastrous premiere this disturbing little play has become a classic. The setting is a rundown boarding house in a seaside town. On this occasion designers The Quay Brothers have realised it beautifully in gloomy, haunted house colours.

The middle-aged landlady and her husband dote on their only tenant Stanley as if he were the child they never had, despite his murky, never-quite-explained past as a concert pianist. Toby Jones plays him like a crumpled man-child, growing increasingly tense and jittery as events turn threatening. The threat comes from two mysterious sharply suited strangers who book a room with no explanation and then encourage a birthday party for Stanley, at which they preside over some increasingly sinister, whisky fuelled, party games that build to a disturbing, suitably surreal climax.

The dialogue consists almost entirely of banalities, but when the facts become contradictory the words start to create a sense of unease and menace. You'll be shocked at how unsettling it all begins to feel as you try to try to work out what's going on, because whatever it is, it’s clearly not very nice.

Premier league actors Zoe Wanamaker & Peter Wight play the boarding house proprietors with all the nuance you’d expect, whilst Stephen Mangan plays the leader of the two interlopers and relishes the contradictory, increasingly menacing speeches which reference elements of Jewish identity. His right hand man, apparently a de-frocked Irish priest, is chillingly played by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor to embody deadpan efficiency laced with flashes of terrifying rage.

This was undeniably a landmark play, which epitomised the trend for surreal and disturbing expressionistic theatre. You can really see how it reflected the moral uncertainty of a society still scarred by the moral ambiguity of the holocaust.

It does feel like a period piece, particularly in director Ian Rixon’s faithful reproduction of how it’s traditionally been staged. I'm not sure it has much to say to us today, but in 1988 Pinter himself remarked of the landlady’s husband,

"The character of the old man, Petey, says one of the most important lines I've ever written. As Stanley is taken away, Petey says, 'Stan, don't let them tell you what to do.' I've lived that line all my damn life. Never more than now."

Unfortunately that line is always going to apply to someone’s struggle against oppression.

If you’re a theatre buff, this revival is an eminently collectable experience and I doubt you’ll see a better cast production of a Pinter play any time soon.

The Birthday Party