Harold Pinter’s early play The Birthday Party is a famously murky piece of work, by turns sinister and absurd.
Ian Rickson’s production boasts a glorious cast. The actors bring out the play’s menace and its unsettling humour too. Toby Jones plays the reclusive Stanley, holed up in a down-at-heel seaside guesthouse in which he is the only guest. He is a man in retreat, from the world and himself, and yet there’s something sharp-edged about him. It feels like he’s only just keeping a lid on his anger. There’s fear mixed in there too, and he seems to shrink when the menacing Goldberg and McCann arrive at his door.
Though neither of the female roles are particularly rewarding, Zoe Wanamaker and Pearl Mackie do as much with them as they can. As landlady Meg, there’s poignancy in Wanamaker’s repetitive prattle about cornflakes, her eagerness to please, and in her tottering, giggling tipsiness. Mackie, meanwhile, brings a degree of resistance to Lulu – a character who, in terms of the play, pretty much exists just to be threatened with sexual violence. She laughs warily as she’s made to perch on the men’s laps during the spiralling strangeness of the party scene.
Stephen Mangan, as the physically imposing Goldberg, relishes the play’s odd comedy. Though he plays some of his scenes for laughs, the way he opens his mouth, so that McCann can inspect his teeth, is deeply disconcerting. He has a gangster’s swagger and he uses his height as a weapon. He is threatening even when silent. Together with Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann, they make a strong double act, a pair of volatile vaudevillians intent of infiltrating Stanley’s life. Alongside them Peter Wight, as Meg’s deckchair attendant husband Petey, is an oasis of genial normality.
Rickson’s production takes its time establishing its chosen tone of slightly queasy naturalism, of milk on the turn. The Quay Brothers’ detailed set is one of gothic domesticity and gentile dilapidation, the gloomy wallpaper seemingly engaged in an act of escape, peeling away from the walls.
The critics were baffled and bemused by Pinter’s play when it opened in 1958, and it closed quickly afterwards. But over the last 60 years, it’s become one of his most performed works. Rickson’s production is one of reverences, a celebration of its ambiguities and inky undercurrents.
While all of the performances are strong, Jones stands out. He’s a magnetic stage actor – the man can even make the act of eating a bowl of soggy cornflakes compelling. The last scene in which a scrubbed, suited, near-catatonic Stanley is led away to an unknown fate, while life winds on as before, is particularly unnerving. Part of him is gone before he’s gone. It’s like a candle has been snuffed out.