THEATRE REVIEW: The Birthday Party

Our critic takes a punt on a Pinter at Sheffield's Lantern Theatre.

FOR Harold Pinter a thing is not necessarily true or false -  it can be both.

And we see exactly what he means in this, his first staged play back in 1958, where the banal existence of boarding house lodger Stanley Webber is ripped apart by a disturbingly arbitrary form of psychological torture. 

The perpetrators — Goldberg (who is Jewish) and McCann (an Irishman)  — appear to represent some other power. Whether it is political or religious (or both) is unclear. 

What is real and what is imagined? Pinter’s explorations of that idea through his characters offers remarkably deep and complex insights into our own lives. As others have said, Pinter is the master at the disconcertingly ambiguous.

The play was inspired by Pinter’s time spent in dingy lodgings as an actor. 

It’s a setting he often returned to. Pinter’s rooms are places in which conversations became carefully observed power games and physical movements and gestures are extraordinarily important.

Stanley is a mysterious man who claims to be a piano player. 

He is visited by Goldberg and McCann, who are looking for a “certain person.

A birthday party for Stanley turns into a terrible experience.

George Critchley is compelling as the frightened Stanley, who tries to stand up for himself but is ultimately crushed. 

His landlady Meg is splendidly played with fluffy dimness by Vicky Howell-Jones, who suggests she knows more than she lets on as her efforts to protect him are pushed aside.

Paul Mathers’ Goldberg is all smiling menace in a suit, switching the charm on and off at will, his accent sometimes reminding me of a South African apartheid-era cop. 

Meanwhile, Sam Novelli invests subtle vulnerability in McCann, who barely holds it together as the pair cast darker and darker shadows. 

They make a sinister comic double act as Stanley is pummelled into submission by Pinter's word play during their interrogation.  

Phil Eardley puts in a fine, understated performance as Meg’s husband Petey and Briony Harrison adds an extra dimension to the unsavoury goings on as the unfortunate Lulu. 

It’s a superb production directed by Danny Smith, who did a fine job in charge of Pinter's more biographical play Betrayal last year. 

The tension never drops as Pinter's vision of everyday reality is transformed.   

The play received poor reviews when it first opened, but today is rightly recognised as a classic.

Pinter himself reckoned Petey’s line “Stan, don't let them tell you what to do” was the most important he’d ever written.

The Birthday Party is at the Lantern Theatre, Sheffield, until Saturday.

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