Happy birthday to The Birthday Party. Harold Pinter’s classic play turns 60 this year, and to mark the occasion the West End theatre bearing the playwright’s name is hosting a starry Sonia Freedman revival until mid-April.
Seasoned Pinter-helmsman Ian Rickson’s fresh production has a stellar six-strong cast: screen stars Toby Jones, Stephen Mangan, Pearl Mackie and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor appear, alongside Zoe Wanamaker and Peter Wight.
Pinter’s play, savaged by all but the Sunday Times’ Harold Hobson on its legendary London premiere in 1958, has nonetheless grown to become one of his most famous and most performed works. Revivals are regular, on stage and on the airwaves, but few can boast as many big names as Rickson’s.
But does Pinter’s disturbing portrait of life in a beachside British boarding house still hold water 60 years after its debut? Is Rickson’s revival a riotous re-imagining a la Jamie Lloyd’s recent production of The Homecoming, or does he kowtow to convention? Can his A-list actors give The Birthday Party an anniversary celebration to remember?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews…
The Birthday Party has all the hallmarks of classic Pinter – twisted naturalism, cryptic dialogue, sinister characters, pervasive menace and all. The big question, though, is does this carefully constructed cocktail still pack a punch in 2018?
For some critics, it absolutely does. “Sixty years on, The Birthday Party has lost none of its capacity to intrigue,” writes Pinter biographer Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). “In Ian Rickson’s starry production, it emerges not simply as a rep thriller filtered through a European sensibility – a cross between Agatha Christie and Kafka, as a German director once said – but as a play of intense psychological realism.”
“Pinter’s cruel dialogue has rarely sounded sharper,” notes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), while Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★) rejoices in “the play’s undiminished power to disconcert”.
“If you haven’t seen the play before, it still works like a thriller, its outcome as uncertain as everything else about it,” observes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). “If you know it, you can appreciate the construction, the way that the screw tightens through three perfectly structured acts, the tricks of memory and hope that mean stories are repeated in different ways.”
A few critics see a national metaphor emerge in the play, Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★) detailing that “it now strikes a national mood of shifting uncertainty and hostility”, and Crompton writing that “in the confusing days of Brexit Britain, Pinter looks like a prescient prophet, a soothsayer of national doom; his observations of human nature are as gripping and relevant as ever”.
“Much remains cryptic, either open to interpretation or ominously floating beyond the periphery of comprehension,” contends Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★). “But in 2018 it’s also striking the extent to which it’s clearly about male power hierarchies and issues of consent.”
“It’s better to take it as simply one of our great works of absurd theatre,” argues Christopher Hart (Sunday Times, ★★★★), “with its incomprehensible reversals, nameless terrors and laughter as dark as the grave.”
Some reviewers, though, think Pinter’s play looks every bit of its 60 years, Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★) complaining that it’s “starting to creak like the floorboards of a cheap boarding house”, and Robert Gore-Langton (Mail on Sunday, ★★★) reckoning he “can’t be alone in sitting through this cruel, rather godforsaken play with respect but precious little affection”.
“The problem is that everyday English has changed vastly since 1957, as has much else,” explains Letts. “From the doleful plate of fried bread to the game of blind man’s buff, the social mapping is antiquated and now tastes nostalgic rather than drab.”
Questions linger, too, over Pinter’s female characters, Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★) noting that neither are “particularly rewarding” and Nick Wells (Radio Times, ★★★) questioning whether we should revere a play which contains female roles “whose only reason seemingly for existing is to either gratify or exasperate the men around them”.
“Maybe it would be best to blow the candles out for good,” he concludes.
So much for the writing, but what about Rickson’s revival? Does the experienced old-hand – who has notched up well-received revivals of Old Times and Betrayal since 2010 – have a party with Pinter’s play?
Not exactly. Rickson opts to play it safe instead. “This isn’t a radical new reading, but a sinister and scrupulously precise production,” relates Hitchings, while Tripney labels it a revival “of reverences, a celebration of its ambiguities and inky undercurrents”.
Some critics think that’s exactly the right approach. “The beauty of Ian Rickson’s superlative revival,” writes Cavendish, “is that it powerfully makes the case for the play’s since-gilded status and confirms afresh that it’s a darkly comic masterpiece without in any way trying overtly to spruce it up for today’s audiences.”
“He knows better than to give this latest piece the kind of surreal make-over that Jamie Lloyd gave to The Homecoming recently,” agrees Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★). “This a production that finds fresh colours in the play.”
Rickson’s revival is “immaculate” according to Susannah Clapp (Observer, ★★★★), “visually meticulous” according to Cavendish, and “beautifully judged” according to Hart, while Billington lauds it as “a production that does rich justice to this strange, elusive play, and it is packed with illuminating detail”.
“Even if you blew out all 60 candles, you couldn’t have wished for a better revival than this,” chimes Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★).
Not everyone agrees, however. Neil Norman (Express, ★★) thinks that “Rickson makes the fatal mistake of ladling on the Pinteresque pauses and the oblique non sequiturs with a reverence that prevents the play from coming to life,” while Lukowski concedes that although “in many ways, a fine production”, it’s all a bit “unadventurous”.
“After the swaggering amphetamine roar of Jamie Lloyd’s recent revival of The Homecoming,” he concludes, “I was disappointed that Rickson has opted for a straight-up period production with a note of the museum to it. This is a tough, radical play, and while precision is important, it feels like it’s been handled with kid gloves.”
Critics are divided over the play and the production, then, even if most come down firmly in favour of both. What everyone can agree on, however, is the pulling power of Rickson’s star-studded cast. How do these famous names cope with Pinter’s notoriously tricky characters?
It’s Toby Jones that the critics shower most praise on. His “showstealing” Stanley is “nervy and audacious” for Lukowski, “pampered and feral at the same time” for Billington, and “mesmerising” for Treneman.
“He’s a magnetic stage actor – the man can even make the act of eating a bowl of soggy cornflakes compelling,” confirms Tripney.
There’s heaps of slightly surprised praise for Mangan, too, an actor best known for his comic roles. “Mangan is electrifying, by turns matey, delusional, bombastic, charming,” writes Treneman. “He is the psycho-guest from hell but you cannot take your eyes off him as he flashes a megawatt smile.”
“Both funny and often terrifying, with a huge sharkish smile and a mouth full of overfriendly teeth, he holds forth, fires questions, laughs, all alpha-male manspreading swagger, tinged with the promise of extreme and joyful violence,” extols Hart.
Wanamaker, Wight, Mackie and Vaughan-Lawlor are all showered with superlatives, too, Jim Compton-Hall (The Upcoming, ★★★★★) exalting “an utterly unbelievable cast” and Crompton praising “a series of beautifully detailed performances”.
It’s good, but it’s not great. Four-star reviews are all The Birthday Party gets to unwrap on its 60th anniversary, with the Telegraph’s five-star rating, and a few three-star write-ups, thrown in too.
Most critics think Pinter’s play has aged well, with some even suggesting its combination of humour and horror has matured into the perfect metaphor for Brexit Britain. Others are less convinced, put off by its dated tropes and underwritten female roles.
Rickson’s respectful revival is divisive, too, with some critics lauding his pinpoint precision and others wishing he’d been more audacious. There’s no disagreement about his top-notch cast, though: everyone agrees that Jones, Mangan, Wanamaker and the rest are simply perfect Pinter.