As various members of the cast have a problem understanding exactly what’s going on in Harold Pinter’s 1957 play, The Birthday Party, what chance do we mere audience members have? Not that it matters, of course, because it’s typical Pinter fare; everyone can make what they will of the events unfolding on stage. In an interview in The Sunday Time’s Culture Magazine, Toby Jones (Stanley in this production) even goes so far as to say that the playwright himself wasn’t too sure. Freddie Jones, Toby’s father, had played Stanley in Pinter’s1964 revival at the Aldwych and he subsequently told his son that “Pinter the director, would frequently question what Pinter the author was writing about”.
What is obvious is that the play’s format resembles those in which Pinter appeared during his weekly rep years. Those thrillers where the actor (often Pinter himself) playing the detective would appear during the third-act to explain and make sense of the bothersome plot. In fact, The Birthday Party was written during some such repertory tour, although this time the play was the farce Doctor in the House. No doubt he was staying in the same kind of seaside digs as the one portrayed here at the Harold Pinter Theatre, so lovingly realised by the Quay Brothers.
The Birthday Party was first produced nearly sixty years ago and received a critical mauling. Not so today and quite rightly so. The cast and director, Ian Rickson have seen to that. They are all, without exception, superb. The play itself still retains its strangeness, but the consensus of opinion now is that just because we don’t necessarily understand what it’s about, doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. Far from it, because the main thing about the play is that it’s awash with meaning; everything foreshadows and is connected to something else.
So, onto what we do know, or think we know about the play. It’s set in a seaside boarding house run by Petey (Peter Wight) and his wife Meg (Zoe Wanamaker). They have a long-standing lodger, the supposed ex pianist Stanley (Toby Jones). They are visited by two strangers, Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and his sidekick McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) who say they know Stanley and want to organise his birthday party. Whether or not it is his birthday we can only guess, because Stanley denies all knowledge! This party can in no way be termed celebratory, especially for neighbour Lulu (Pearl Mackie) and Stanley himself and the sense of unease that surrounds the gathering often borders on the sinister. Why do the strangers really want to see Stanley, does he actually know them and what will eventually happen to him?
The hint of menace that pervades this production is due in no small measure to the wonderful Stephen Mangan. His extraordinary array of teeth are shown to great effect, as his sinister Goldberg delivers each malicious comment accompanied by a synthetic smile. Unlike Goldberg, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s insecure McCann can’t always contain his psychopathic tendencies and he perfectly encapsulates a man teetering on the edge of sanity. Whilst Stanley is the ultimate victim of the piece, Toby Jones manages to imbue him with a vicious streak, whether it be sniping at his landlady or verbal point scoring with his inquisitors. He is ideally cast as the shambolic, sad little man but he brings much more to the role than just that. It is easy for us to assume that he is well used to these bully boy tactics and that maybe, just maybe he really was once a paid-up member of their organisation - whatever that may be.
Zoe Wanamaker completely absorbs herself into the role of the vacuous Meg. Infatuated with Stanley, she is by turns motherly and flirtatious when in his company. There is no doubt that this rather lonely character was once something of a tease, highlighted to great effect when she preens and simpers when dressed up for the party in her ‘best frock’. Peter Wight is his usual excellent self as her mild-mannered husband, Petey, whilst Pearl Mackie’s abused Lulu brings a touch of vamp to the proceedings.
An article in the programme by writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough discusses using memory as a weapon. And The Birthday Party can be summarised as a play about how the three main characters remember the past. Each uses their memories to different effect, but thanks to Pinter’s genius, the one constant is that what they remember cannot be disputed. This is what helps to ensure that the pervading but subtle menace never lets up.