In the second half of the 1950s, the British Theatre was shaken to its core. A string of new playwrights emerged clutching their angry, defiant and unconventional work - ‘Waiting for Godot’, ‘Look Back in Anger’ and Harold Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party’ were among them. Nothing was ever the same again.
Premiered in 1958, ‘The Birthday Party’ only lasted a week before it had to be taken off. Critics were almost unanimous in condemning it. Thank God, that was not the last we heard or saw if it, because it’s a truly great play. I first heard it on the radio, and it works equally well in that medium as it does on stage. I’ve been mesmerised by it ever since.
The play takes place in a shabby seaside boarding house – the kind almost every actor of the day frequented, including Pinter. Meg is the landlady and her husband, Petey, works as a deck chair attendant. Their only lodger is Stanley, a dishevelled, unemployed piano player. The play starts with the humdrum ritual of the meagre boarding house breakfast – cornflakes, fried bread and tea. But this day isn’t going to be like every other, because according to Meg at least, it’s Stanley’s birthday. And unusually, two new visitors are expected.
When Goldberg and MacCann arrive, it’s clear they’re not just interested in a ‘nice’ place to stay – they have a job to do, though we never learn what it is, or why they’ve been sent to do it. The focus of their attentions is Stanley, and his reactions tell us immediately that he’s terrified of them.
Learning that it’s Stanley’s birthday, Goldberg suggests a party for that evening. The events that ensue leave Stanley in a catatonic state, firmly in the clutches of Goldberg and his henchman, McCann. When they leave, the dismal ritual and routine of the boarding house return once more.
It’s not difficult to see why theatregoers and critics alike found this play trying when it premiered. Although there’s a basic story, there’s much that remains unexplained, so that we’re left wondering why Goldberg and McCann have come for Stanley. What has he done? What’s his background? We never find out. And odd things occur throughout. Meg buys Stanley a child’s drum for his birthday because “he hasn’t got a piano to play”. And the partygoers play the children’s game ‘blind man’s buff’. It’s odd, strange and, of course, unsettling. Goldberg and McCann are highly menacing, and threats are littered around the script like leaves blowing in the wind. But they strike home, and we the audience feel almost as threatened as Stanley.
Dark though it may be, ‘The Birthday Party’ is also immensely funny. But it isn’t contrived humour – it’s borne out of reality and the ordinariness of characters like Meg. “I know people like that”, said my guest as she chuckled away throughout the play.
“How often do you meet nice people?” says Goldberg. “Never”, says McCann. And when Stanley tells Meg that his breakfast is “succulent”, she replies “you shouldn’t say that word to a married woman”.
This production of ‘The Birthday Party’ is a particularly fine one - apparently Pinter has been closely involved. Peter McKintosh’s design is a near-perfect description of a run-down seaside boarding house of the 1950’s. There’s methodical attention to detail – newspapers piled up under the armchair, ‘things’ stuffed under every item of furniture. If one had been close enough to see, I could easily imagine copious quantities of dust or ‘fluff’ littered about the set. And even in the design of the front cloth – two deckchairs on a pebble beech – McKintosh has incorporated a sense of menace by making one of the deckchairs slightly bigger than the other (if my eyes were not deceiving me).
There are also very fine performances too, carefully orchestrated by Lindsay Posner’s laudable and sensitive direction. Each of the actors really brings something vital and refreshing to the roles. Henry Goodman was more charming and smarmy than I’ve seen in previous productions, but he also gave us a real sense of Goldberg’s own vulnerability and disquiet about the job in hand. Eileen Atkin is quite superb as the almost child-like Meg. Paul Litter, as Stanley, brought an almost animal-like quality to the role, leaning over the table balancing his leg on the chair while shouting at Meg at one point. And Geoffrey Hutchings gave a marvellously low-key, down-to-earth performance as Petey, shuffling round the stage in his plimsolls, but astute enough to be the only one to recognise Goldberg and McCann’s intentions.
Most critics now seem to agree that it’s nigh on impossible to analyze Pinter’s plays. One has even gone so far as to say that the very fact that one cannot analyse them is what makes them so enjoyable to watch. In a recent interview on BBC television, Pinter described the writing of his plays as ‘acts of discovery’, never knowing what he would end up with when he started writing them. He says that cornflakes was the initial idea for ‘The Birthday Party’, and claims it’s about the power of the establishment, authoritarianism and the individual under pressure. But there’s so much more in it too. For me it’s the old ‘conundrum inside a riddle, wrapped-up in an enigma’. But I’m not sure that matters. It’s a masterly work of drama, served-up in a terrifically enjoyable production.
What other critics had to say.....
ROBERT HANKS for THE INDEPENDENT says, "thoroughly enjoyable production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Probing, intelligent and very well-acted version of a brilliant play." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "The whole cast is superb." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Now receiving a cracking revival in the West End...it has lost none of its power to shock, disconcert and above all entertain." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Strongly cast, finely acted revival..the play leaves us...nervous, unsure but fascinated."