Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Birthday Party

Harold Pinter
TAG Theatre Company
Traverse, Edinburgh, and touring
(2003)

Although TAG's production of The Birthday Party is generally well-performed, well-designed, and well-directed, the whole comes across as less than the sum of its parts. The programme notes that only one critic was willing, when the show first premiered, to approve of the show and I, for one, find more fault with Pinter's writing than with the production as directed at the Traverse by Guy Hollands.

The actors do more than justice to Pinter's material, which seems like it might be easy to turn into caricatures. Especially in the case of Meg (Katherine Stark) and Petey (Alex Heggie), the older couple who run the boarding house where the action of the play takes place, it would have been easy to turn scenes into Archie Bunker outtakes. The back-and-fourth of the characters, while verbally repetitive, is kept moving along by Stark and Heggie's inflections and timing.

Most of the play centers around the pursuit of Stanley (Ronnie Simon) - by Meg at first, but later also by Goldberg (Stewart Porter) and McCann (Bryan Larkin). In the opening scene, Simon brings his character to life in short, clipped responses to Meg's inquiries as to the state of his breakfast and sleeping patterns, while his disintegration into a nervous breakdown is difficult to dissect - but it seems like this difficulty is more due to Pinter's writing, which gives actor and audience very little in the way of hints to help determine why Stanley is so nervous about Goldberg and McCann's sudden presence in the boarding house. With more of an idea of what it was Stanley was running from, it might be easier to understand where his breakdown comes from, but since there is ultimately only the reason of his having deserted "the club" - a statement with a veracity almost impossible to determine, given the lack of detail in Pinter's script - one cannot blame Simon for the lack of clarity.

Porter and Larkin present Goldberg and McCann as a sort of pre-Stoppard Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. It's obvious that the two actors are having great fun at their parts - especially Porter, whose character exhibits a vile chumminess and is stated to have tastes that run to the perverted. They play well off one another, but at some points in the play it seems the lines are meant only as the writer's self-congratulatory cleverness, which makes it difficult for the audience to engage with what's being said. As with Stark and Heggie's earlier scene, however, Porter and Larkin do their best to liven up stale lines, and if one is willing to simply sit back and listen to the form of the spoken language rather than the meanings of the words being used, Pinter's first full-length play becomes slightly less tedious.

As the "generic, good-looking, slightly loose young woman" Lulu, Jo Freer does her best to imbue an essentially one-dimensional character with life - but again, Pinter's text doesn't allow for much development of what could be an interesting character.

Flamboyant reds and oranges dominate Neil Warmington's set, and clever use of space makes it easy for the audience to imagine that Meg and Petey's boarding house extends far beyond the reaches of the tiny Traverse 2 theatre. Since this production will be touring Scotland until 31st October, 2003, it will be interesting for audiences in other spaces to see how the design changes as the production moves from venue to venue.

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Reviewer: Rachel Lynn Brody