This is the first time I have seen a production of "The Birthday Party" and so I am unable to compare this with others, particularly the Royal National Theatre's production in 1994, which received great reviews from the popular press.
So what is "The Birthday Party" all about? Well, the action takes place in a Boarding House (Or so we are led to believe?). There is only one guest, Stanley, a pianist who used to work on the pier, but is now unemployed and a bit of a slob. He has been the only guest/lodger at the house for a couple of years. His hosts are husband and wife Meg and Petey. Meg is very innocent and unsophisticated. The play implies that Meg is having an affair with Stanley, or maybe the play is implying that she just loves him as a son? Petey who is a deck chair attendant, is a kind man who is caring to both his wife and Stanley. However, their world is turned upside down with the arrival of two men, Goldberg and McCann. Why have the men chosen this particular guesthouse? Why is Stanley uncomfortable with their arrival? Does he know them, or maybe he knows why they are here? Maybe, 'Petey' is responsible for them being there in the first place? All I can say is that at the end of the play 'Petey' definitely knows who they are! The only thing you can be certain of in this play is that the two men terrorise 'Stanley' causing him to have a nervous breakdown. Why? This is the question?
This cryptic play is intriguing and mesmerising as one tries to desperately work out why events are happening. It is also a little disturbing when witnessing the breakdown of Stanley.
This is not one of your usual Pinter plays in that there are no long pauses, but it does have the complex Pinter stamped all over it.
Joe Harmston, has directed the play with great skill producing a fine balance between fear, comedy and mystery. Harmston has already had some experience of directing plays by Pinter having directed "The Collection" and "The Lover" at the Donmar Warehouse last year. Mind you, I'm sure Harmston's work has been made easy by a cast that is quite exceptional. Prunella Scales is superb as 'Meg', a dotty housekeeper who has an attraction for Stanley. There is an articulate performance from Timothy West as 'Goldberg', and a powerful performance from Nigel Terry playing the unpredictable 'McCann', a man who is pleasant and shy one minute but can become angry and violent the next. Steven Pacey (who was last in the West End in "Things We Do For Love") is very convincing as 'Stanley', particularly with the transformation of Stanley from being hot-tempered and irritable to a broken, shattered man. The other two cast members Lisa Dulson as the flirty and immature 'Lucy' and Barry Jackson as the weak and dreary 'Petey ' are adequate.
I personally do not think that it is important to know who the two men are or why they are there. I believe Pinter was mainly trying to get the message across that we all have delusions and are wanting in some way.
"The Birthday Party" is a dark and at times funny play that will have you talking for hours after it has finished. It is full of cryptic dialogue that will have you picking your brains. When you start to think hard about the play you discover how clever it is and see why it has now become a classic.
This revival has received mixed reviews from the popular press: JANE EDWARDS of TIME OUT says, "Director Joe Harmston comes up with an evening that is only serviceable." PETER HEPPLE of THE STAGE says, " Joe Harmston has mounted a handsome revival." THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Forty-one years on, Joe Harmston's revival is sharp on the comedy, not so hot on the menace.". THE GUARDIAN says, "Pinter's The Birthday Party long ago made the journey from critical failure to modern classic. But where Sam Mendes's 1994 National Theatre production brilliantly captured the play's escalating terror, Joe Harmston's cautious revival adds little new to our apprehension of the play." THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "The play is undoubtedly a modern classic, one that taps in to the heart of 20th-century nightmares." THE TIMES says, "Yes, it's good to see The Birthday Party again." NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Harold Pinter's first full-length play retains its capacity to perplex."
If you like your plays to be clear and undemanding then stay well away from the Piccadilly theatre. However, if you like a challenge with intrigue, and if you love puzzles then this is the play for you.
Last year, I saw Pinter's Old Times and found it surreal. Actually more like slow and boring. Pinter's The Birthday Party is just as surreal. However, it is directed much better and given a workable pace so that one has a better idea of what is going on. The play is set at a seaside B&B run by Meg (played by Prunella Scales of Faulty Tower fame) and Petey. Her only guest is Stanley, a mean, pushy obnoxious man who acts as if he owns the place. Petey invites two shady, older gentleman played by Timothy West (Edward VII) and Nigel Terry (Excalibur) to stay. That night, a Stanley becomes paranoid at his birthday party as he thinks these men have come to get him. The strange thing about the characters is that there isn't a lot of background information given for any of the characters. The viewer isn't told why Stanley is there, or why the two men show up or what if anything they might have to do with Stanley. This allows you to concoct your own scenario with just the fr! amework of the play. I found myself adding my own assumptions to the characters and determining myself why the characters were doing what they were doing. I found this play to work better than Old Times but I think that I really have to be in the mood for a show like this. One really must invest some thought.
(Rodney R Anderson)