THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 14th June, 2016
This tour of Harold Pinter’s first full-length play by the excellent London Classic Theatre comes to its end in Coventry, and it’s pleasing to see a good turnout and to hear the dialogue getting so many laughs. The play happens to be a big favourite of mine.
Once again, I marvel at Pinter’s skills at taking everyday patterns of speech and manipulating them, not only to humorous effect but also to generate an air of threat. By and large, what is said is funny, but it is what the characters don’t say that creates the menace – apart from the sudden violent outbursts, of course.
Meg takes in lodgers at her seaside home. Her husband Petey is a deckchair attendant. Their only houseguest is Stanley, a former professional pianist. When two men arrive, supposedly on Stanley’s birthday, they use the festivities to further their own ends, namely getting Stanley where they want him, ready to be taken away… It’s chilling because of the lack of explanation. Histories are hinted at; we try to read between the lines, but there are too many pieces missing from this jigsaw puzzle. We are left with unsettling feelings, all explanations denied.
It’s a solid, straightforward production, and it is beautifully played by the cast of six. Cheryl Kennedy’s Meg is dim and daft – behind her annoying treatment of Stanley is the vaguest sense of loss, of never having been loved, of being childless perhaps… Ged McKenna is excellent as Petey, shuffling around – he tries to stand up to the interlopers but he’s a defenceless old man. Ultimately, by letting Meg’s delusions continue for a little bit longer, he shows us that he does care for her. Gareth Bennett Ryan’s Stanley falls apart before our very eyes – from bossing around his landlady, to banging his drum, assaulting a guest, before ultimately being reduced to a gibbering shadow. That guest, Lulu, is a perky Imogen Wilde but it is not with Stanley that she has a grievance the morning after, but the avuncular but sinister Goldberg (Jonathan Ashley on fine form). Goldberg is overbearing and sentimental – a front for his real nature and his unspecified mission. Declan Rodgers amuses as hot-headed sidekick McCann, sometimes psychopathic, sometimes sociable.
Goldberg and McCann’s stichomythia is handled splendidly, wearing down their victim by force of words, familiar yet incomprehensible.
Director Michael Cabot uses no gimmicks, allowing Pinter to have his head, teasing out the play’s dark corners and letting the language (and indeed the silences) speak volumes, taking the action at a steady pace.
People emerging from the auditorium confess to being a bit baffled, claiming not to ‘get it’. What they don’t get is that’s the point. Life isn’t fully explained or explainable. Threats and attacks can be random and inexplicable. Your number could be up at any minute, and those men with their van with the wheelbarrow in it, could be coming for you next, whether you deserve it or not.
To me, the play is a masterpiece – and it is very well served by this no frills, straight-down-the-line production.