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The Birthday Party

Review - The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The critical and commercial failure of Harold Pinter's second full-length play The Birthday Party in its original production in 1958 could well have ended his career right there and then; but here we are, exactly 60 years later, in the West End theatre that now bears his own name, watching a commercial revival of the same play that has long since been entirely rehabilitated as one of his most popular and enduring masterpieces. 

Its original production closed after just eight performances at the Lyric Hammersmith, following reviews that had variously dubbed it as "puzzling", "bewildering" and one stating, "What all this means, only Mr Pinter knows, for as his characters speak in non-sequiturs, half-gibberish, and lunatic ravings, they are unable to explain."

But it was another critic's verdict, published after the play had already shut, that prompted a re-evaluation: Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson, who had seen it on a Thursday matinee with a audience of seven including the playwright, called Pinter "the most original, disturbing, and arresting talent in theatrical London" and labelled the play "a Grand Guignol of the susceptibilities".

In the six decades since we've seen many fine revivals, from the National (in 1994, when Sam Mendes directed a cast that included Dora Bryan, Trevor Peacock and Bob Peck) to the West End (most recently in 2005 at the Duchess with a cast that included Eileen Atkins, Henry Goodman and Geoffrey Hutchings) and in a 50th anniversary revival at its original short-lived London home at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2008 (with Sheila Hancock and Nicholas Woodeson).

But though it has always been a play that offers a feast for good, quirky acting, I've seldom found myself so simultaneously menaced and entertained as I was this time at the Pinter Theatre. Ian Rickson - a consummate Pinter director at this same address, where he has previously also staged revivals of Old Times and Betrayal - orchestrates a finely-tuned cast in the minute rhythms of comedy and threat that pulse through the play.

The down-at-heel seaside guest house - with its single long-term guest occupant Stanley sullenly trudging downstairs to a late breakfast every morning - is embodied with peeling wallpaper and an air of decay by designers the Quay Brothers. Stanely is brought to a strange, disturbing sense of life - or it is a living death? - by the crumpled, dishevelled Toby Jones; while as his besotted landlady Zoe Wanamaker is a picture of upbeat optimism. Peter Wight as her deckchair attendant husband is also perfection in his brooding silences. 

But it is the arrival of two strangers Goldberg and McCann to rent a room whose menacing purpose remains a mystery throughout that gives the play its charge - and Stephen Mangan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor embody them with intrigue and generate a palpable sense of unease. 

It is a really powerful and entertaining revival of a modern classic. 

The Birthday Party is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14th April. 

The Birthday Party Tickets are available now.

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