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Review: The Birthday Party, at Harold Pinter Theatre

Zoë Wanamaker and Toby Jones are outstanding in Pinter play set in a seaside boarding house

25 January, 2018 — By John Courtney O’Connor

Zoë Wanamaker and Toby Jones in The Birthday Party. Photos: Johan Persson

THE Birthday Party was premiered in London 60 years ago to mixed reviews and a dwindling audience. The writer, Harold Pinter, was then a jobbing actor and when he attended a matinée performance he was challenged by the usherette for his ticket. He assured her that he was the playwright. There was a moment’s (Pinteresque) silence; she then commiserated with him.

The piece is now considered a masterwork. It is set in a boarding house in a seaside town run by Meg Boles (Zoë Wanamaker), a frustrated housewife, and her impotent husband Petey (Peter Wight).

They have a longstanding guest Stanley (Toby Jones) a one-time piano player on the sea front who has a mysterious past and a fear of strangers. The house is frequented by Lulu (Pearl Mackie) the sexy girl-next-door, her name echoing that of the American film star, dancer and femme-fatale Louise Brooks.

The arrival of Goldberg and McCann, two travellers from London, played by Stephen Mangan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor respectively, disrupts the dynamics of the boarding house.

They have come to collect Stanley … or have they? The exact purpose of their presence is unclear but there is no doubt that they are agents from hell. Menacing outsiders – the Jew and the Irishman.

Stephen Mangan as Goldberg

Meg organises a birthday party for Stanley and buys a drum for him to play. Goldberg and McCann get involved, while Stanley protests that it is not his birthday and Lulu joins in the “fun”.

Petey, foreseeing danger, claims he has a chess club to attend. What unfolds is a bizarre game of blind man’s bluff, and when McCann deliberately breaks Stanley’s specs there are gasps from the audience.

This is a very well cast production with outstanding performances from Wanamaker, Mangan and Toby Jones.

The director, Ian Rickson, has focused on the humorous aspects of the play, which works well – compared with previous productions I have seen in which the menace can become overwrought and tiresome.

The Kafka elements of the piece are apparent: The horror of mistaken identity and “Are we all guilty of something?”

The American playwright David Mamet has been much influenced by Pinter, but – unlike Mamet – Harold actually likes his characters and makes the patter of everyday folk magical.

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