The Birthday Party
Bristol Old Vic
Simon Reade's direction of The Birthday Party strips back the layers of menace that have dominated past productions so that the characters are as stark as the greyscale set (beautifully designed by Conor Murphy), allowing other nuances of Pinter's 1958 script to come to the fore.
Ferdy Roberts gives the play its central focus: his outstanding portrayal of a despondent, self-indulgent Stanley in the first act makes it clear that his nervous break-down begins long before the party starts. His idealised reminiscence about his lost career as a pianist, along with Reade's light touch, leads us to consider whether it's not so much organised crime but organisation of any sort that Stanley is running from: what he fears most is perhaps not violence but conformity. His despair when Meg suggests he look for a job and his delusional response that he is considering a round the world piano gig seem to support that.
The typically imposing figures of Goldberg and McCann are here deliberately more comic and absurd than menacing. Impressively played by Brian Protheroe and Stephen Kennedy, you almost feel that they are more salesmen than mobsters, and you are more inclined to believe their briefcases contain a selection of shower-curtain hooks than guns. They berate him for turning his back on 'the organisation' as they call him 'a washout'.
By the second act Stanley's bleak and catatonic desperation is perhaps more clearly explained when he allows himself to be led off by them: suited, groomed and conforming.
All the characters exist in their own bubble: each is incapable of empathy. Sheila Staefel's Meg is stunning. A loveable but infuriatingly blinkered character: unable to see beyond the sugar-sweet veneer with which she has made good her world, so that as Stanley groans in despair and frustration at the emptiness of his life over his breakfast table, she wonders whether he had perhaps not "paid a visit this morning".
No-one even establishes eye contact until Goldberg enters and starts sweet-talking both Meg and Lulu. The pauses are fully-loaded throughout: in Pinter's words, "The pause is a pause because of what has just happened in the minds and guts of the characters".
Peter Gordon's Petey is remarkable: quiet, grounded and all-seeing. His plea to Stanley to resist the temptation to give in, to conform, "Don't let them tell you what to do!" seems to refer as much to his world of pointless occupation - setting out deckchairs "in all weathers" - as it does to the organised crime so heavily emphasised in other productions. His final lie to his wife about her beloved Stanley's whereabouts is moving in that it is the first example in the play of real empathy: he lies as much to protect her feelings as he does to cover his own guilt at his inaction.
This metaphorical interpretation is given an ethereal emphasis by the stunning monochromatic set, props and costumes. It's a gleaming, white and grey space, framed in white and suspended in black; we are almost watching this unfold on a black and white TV screen.
Fans of the heavy menace of past productions may bemoan its loss here, but, bolstered by an impeccable cast, Reade brings a new dimension to Pinter's text and creates an intriguing piece of theatre.
Runs at the Bristol Old Vic until October 14th
Reviewer: Allison Vale