The Birthday Party 2005
Birmingham Repertory Theatre, UK Tour
& Duchess Theatre, London
Programme Cover
Birmingham Repertory Theatre & Tour
  Programme Cover
Duchess Theatre, London
Petey - Geoffrey Hutchings
Meg - Eileen Atkins
Stanley - Paul Ritter
Lulu - Sinead Matthews
Goldberg - Henry Goodman
McCann - Finbar Lynch

Director - Lindsay Posner
Desinger - Peter McKintosh
Lighting Designer - Hartley T A Kemp
Sound Designer - John Leonard
The Birthday Party
Duchess Theatre, London
Tuesday April 26, 2005

In 1958 Harold Pinter's play was famously savaged by the daily critics. Now it comes before us as a modern classic. And, watching Lindsay Posner's richly enjoyable West End revival, I started speculating about the cultural changes that had made a once baffling play so apparently accessible.

I suspect one problem in the 50s was that critics assumed Pinter was writing in the absurdist vein of Ionesco and NF Simpson. Now, it is much easier to see the play for what it is: a rep thriller reinvented by a man who's read Kafka. One of the things I love about the play is that it uses such devices as the psychotic fugitive and instant blackouts that featured in 50s potboilers. At the same time, it ushers us into a world of authentic persecution and torment.

Since we now know more about Pinter, it is also easier for us to spot the play's political resonances. The basic situation is that Stanley, a truculent recluse hiding away in a dingy seaside boarding house, is terrorised and eventually taken away by Goldberg and McCann, two agents of an undefined organisation. Who or what they represent is left open. But it is hard now not to see them as embodiments of religious tradition, socio-political orthodoxy and, most especially, the corporate world in which the individual is subordinate to the demands of the company ethos.

One of the joys of this revival is watching Eileen Atkins and Henry Goodman sinking their teeth into gratifying parts without destroying the balance of the whole. Atkins is extraordinary as Meg, the smothering landlady who presides over these dingy seaside digs. For a start, Atkins leaves you in no doubt that she is besotted by Stanley as her tongue lasciviously probes his ear or she gazes at him in doe-eyed wonderment. But Atkins also brings out the childlike pathos of the infantilised Meg. When her husband, Pe tey, describes a seaside play in which people just talk, Atkins gazes at him in baffled incomprehension. And at the birthday party sadistically organised for Stanley, she floats around in a filmy green dress as if trying to recapture her lost innocence.

It's a mesmerising performance superbly matched by Goodman's Goldberg. Goodman exudes false, cuff-shooting bonhomie but underneath his paeans to a sentimentalised Jewish past there is always a sense of danger. You get a glimpse of it in the lethal stare he gives the unwary McCann, who claims: "You've always been a true Christian." And Goodman has a nice trick of allowing his smile to linger too long as if it had been refrigerated. But Goodman really comes into his own in the last act when he reveals the sweat-stained panic of the organisation man perpetually in thrall to some higher authority.

This, even more than in the famous interrogation scene, is where you see Pinter's debt to Kafka: in the notion that everyone is contaminated by the mysterious hierarchy of power. In line with this, Paul Ritter rightly suggests that Stanley is not some supine sufferer but a demented, unshaven wreck tormented by his own sense of guilt and betrayal. At the same time Rit ter invests with extraordinary pathos a line where Stanley, recalling a piano concert he once gave, says: "My father nearly came down to hear me."

But one of the delights of Pinter's play is that you always discover something new in it. Finbar Lynch's dour, buttoned-up, very funny McCann, for instance, reminds us that the man is a recently unfrocked priest. And, even if it is not exactly new, Geoffrey Hutchings's Petey reminds us that he is the one obstacle to Stanley's abduction and that when he cries: "Stan, don't let them tell you what to do," it is with the grief-stricken tone of one whose spirit has already been broken.

Posner's production, which started at Birmingham Rep, may lack some of the initial jauntiness of Sam Mendes's 1994 National Theatre revival. But it is still a probing, intelligent and very well-acted version of a brilliant play: one that was ahead of its time in 1958 but that now seems a frighteningly timeless account of the difficulty of maintaining spiritual resistance to the demands of political and social orthodoxy.

by Michael Billington

The Birthday Party
Duchess Theatre, London
Published: April 27 2005

Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, new in 1958, has become, of all strange things, a classic. Strange, because even now it is so very unsettling. You think you know this set-up? You think you know these people? You don't. In how many different ways has Pinter dramatised this? Unknowable, unfathomable, unpossessable. Watching this seaside living-room, this landlady Meg, this deckchair attendant her husband Petey, this their lodger Stanley, the flashes of flirtation, sexiness and subversive comedy between them and Lulu and the two sinister new arrivals McCann and Goldberg, it's easy to think "How Alan Ayckbourn" and then "How Joe Orton", even "How Dickens".
But the world of The Birthday Party is Kafka-on-Sea. Banal reality keeps tipping into the bizarre surreal and back again. The most comically ordinary situation becomes one fraught with terror. Give Pinter two people in a room, and he gives you suspense, humour, recognition, pathos and terror.
Fear afflicts each of the six characters. Nobody watching Lindsay Posner's production can miss the appalling moment when Goldberg (Henry Goodman), the play's smiling villain, elsewhere so assured and frightening, suddenly breaks down in mid-sentence: he tries to affirm a world view and, three times, fails. The fierce/ smooth contrasts of Goodman's character, and his intelligence and virtuoso musicality, make Goldberg register unforgettably.
The whole cast is superb: it is marvellous how naturally the play's changes of tempo and dynamics work here. Eileen Atkins is a definitive Meg just because of her incisive clarity. Every stroke of complacency, anxiety, inadequacy, dottiness is rendered with piercing lucidity: the glowing adoration she has for Stanley is always undercut by her petty fears and by her need to believe that all's well. As Stanley, Paul Ritter plays the character's tough/weak contrasts with haunting mordancy, right up to his final crushed/uncrushable departure. Finbar Lynch's McCann - most daft and most weak when most bullying, sweetest when least expected - is another ideal performance.
Perhaps the most surprising twist of the production is the odd strength of character that Geoffrey Hutchings brings to Petey: staunch until he, too, suddenly crumples at the very end. After the play ends, the notes of pity and fear it strikes go on playing, hauntingly, in your head.

By Alastair Macaulay

Photographer - Nobby Clark
First Image - Eileen Atkins as Meg
Second Image - Henry Goodman as Goldberg
Third Image - Paul Ritter as Stanley & Finbar Lynch as McCann
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