The Birthday Party
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
By the time Pinter's The Birthday Party came along in 1958, theatre in England had been well-and-truly shaken up, not least by Pinter's fellow actor-writer John Osborne whose Look Back In Anger and The Entertainer had been unleashed on the world the previous two years.
The setting of Pinter's play makes sense when you look at Pinter's background as a young actor in the '50s, with characters that would have been quite at home in some of the plays popular in weekly rep and provincial productions in which he performed thrown together with a setting and real-life characters from some of the seedier digs in which he would have had to stay.
There is something of the young playwright trying to re-write the rules with his deliberate obscurity and vagueness about setting, motivation and character background, something that he put to more powerful use later but here has a slight pretention about it. The influence of Beckett, whose Waiting For Godot had only hit London three years earlier, is clear in some of the lists of non sequiters, as well as in Pinter's refusal to explain anything in his letter to the original director, reproduced in the programme.
But there is also an early glimpse of Pinter's brilliantly-observed dialogue as characters exchange banalities, repeat themselves, contradict themselves and generally say very little using a lot of words. The constant threat of violence, while a little melodramatic at times, is something else that becomes a regular Pinter device.
There is also a lot of humour, something that is brought out very strongly in Blanche McIntyre's production—perhaps a little too strongly as some subtleties are rather glossed over as a result.
Dick Bird's design recreates a familiar old-fashioned guest house dining room, but to bring the kitchen hatch into the action of this in-the-round stage he has created a strange tunnel of 50s wallpaper down one of the aisles containing occasional action that is invisible to at least a third of the audience. This is as close to a box set as you can get in-the-round, with a full ceiling that lowers between acts with grinding mechanical noises to emphasise the claustrophobia.
McIntyre has assembled an impressive cast for the production. Maggie Steed is absolutely perfect for the role of landlady Meg, getting every nuance of character out of the often-banal and -meaningless dialogue. Desmond Barrit is equally well-suited to the role of Goldberg, the more senior of the two mysterious visitors who have, we are led to believe, come to find Stanley to make him face the consequences of something that has happened in the past. What he has done and what these consequences are is never specified.
As Stanley—for whose birthday party they are preparing, even though he insists it isn't his birthday—Ed Gaughin gives a performance that is quite remarkable both physically and vocally, but one which is in a totally different register to the rest of the production. His Stanley is a grotesque who moves in a hunched, scurry rather like an animal and an attitude towards his landlady like a bored teenager to his mother.
Paul McCleary gives a lovely, detailed performance as Meg's husband Petey, Keith Dunphy is suitably intimidating as Goldberg's colleague McCann and Danusia Samal is the lovely Lulu, a seemingly innocent character dealt with disturbingly by both characters and playwright.
This is an interesting play as you can see everything that has influenced this influential playwright combined with the seeds of his future very distinctive style, but there is more than just academic interest about this production which is certainly entertaining, even if it does drive a little too hard for the crowd-pleasing laughs.
Reviewer: David Chadderton