The balloons were out, the invitations sent, and Meg was in her best frock, but would Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party be a hit?
It has been 60 years since this dark comedy underwhelmed critics. There’s no getting away from it, Pinter baffled theatre-goers when the production first premiered and it is still raising quizzical eyebrows.
But this starry revival, which has just opened at – where else? – the Harold Pinter Theatre – is immensely enjoyable – even if you occasionally lose the plot.
Toby Jones, Zoë Wanamaker, Stephen Mangan, Peter Wight, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Pearl Mackie might occasionally wonder themselves about the meaning of what they’re saying but they are being expertly steered through the writer’s unique Pinteresque language by director Ian Rickson.
Stephen Mangan’s intimidating Goldberg – dressed like a Savile Row tailor and sounding like a Kafkaesque government agent – makes gobbledegook sound impressively menacing, delivered simultaneously with a predatory, wolfish, grin and a threatening glower.
You can’t believe anything you hear in this alternate Pinter universe. It’s easy to read symbolism into the dialogue, performance and character detail – or it could all be a ploy by Pinter to arouse interest.
Are the Jewish Goldberg and Irish McCann deliberately portrayed as the threat to individual freedom and freewill or was Pinter simply toying with us?
No-one, except perhaps Peter Wight’s forlorn and ever-nagged deckchair attendant with a penchant for model yachts, Petey, ever tells the truth.
His wife, Meg (Wanamaker giving a superbly deadpan performance), who runs a down-at-heel seaside guest house – I imagined Margate – is losing her marbles and believes everything she’s told with a childlike naivety.
Her long-term resident guest, Stanley, contradicts himself with every word he utters, while two mysterious strangers who stop for the night, could have escaped from an asylum or may be genuinely threatening.
The Birthday Party hosts some outstanding performances from this stellar ensemble who deliver an over-indulgence of sinister paranoia coupled with hilarious comedy. Sometimes you’ll simply be laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
Petey comes home after a stint on the beach to tell his wife that there may be two extra guests. He got chatting to two men, Goldberg and his unhinged associate McCann, and the pair were looking for somewhere to stay.
The couple’s only guest is Stanley, who has spent a year in this salubrious residence, with its peeling wallpaper and yellowing paintwork, probably in the same striped pyjamas he has on right now.
Toby Jones, looking wonderfully dishevelled, could be a concert pianist – or not. He never seems to go out and he has become the son Meg never had, being doted over – and occasionally flirted with.
Meg believes that today is Stanley’s birthday and she wants to throw a party for him. He insists that she has the wrong date but the party goes ahead with the only other guests being Goldberg and McCann and neighbour Lulu.
But the party turns into a nightmare for all concerned.
Pinter’s trademark language is given a reverence both by Rickson, and the cast, and it is beautifully delivered with its frequent pauses in all the right places.
Meg frets over everything – from serving up cornflakes for breakfast to ensuring Stanley has a party to remember.
“Is it nice?” she frequently asks, demanding assurances from everyone.
McCann is a tightly coiled spring, venting his frustration on tearing strips off newspapers, while Goldberg seems to like the sound of his own voice.
A terrifically enjoyable time will be had by all. The Birthday Party is a masterpiece in character study.
“Was it nice?”
Running at the Harold Pinter Theatre until April 14.