It was of course at the Lyric in Hammersmith that the debut London run of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party was staged, receiving such a bad press initially that it closed before the one positive notice appeared. It is probably thanks to that single complimentary review, by Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times, that the play did not disappear from sight and is able to make a fitting return to the Lyric to celebrate its own 50th birthday.
And David Farr's very fine production, which is more than worthy of the occasion, shows it is be not only still alive but very well indeed. Despite its age, and the fact that it is set at the time it was written, it feels new-minted, whilst the sense of unease, even fear, generated by its unexplained events seems not only more powerful but also more relevant than ever. Moreover, it is not just because we do not know what lies behind the seizure of Stanley by two ultimately sinister strangers that we are discomfited – we realise perfectly well that if we did understand this we would be even more afraid!
Jon Bausor's set evokes the dingiest of boarding-houses imaginable. Not very wide to begin with, it closes in as it goes further back, producing a distinctly claustrophobic effect only heightened by its brown-stained walls. And even if the room's somewhat utilitarian furnishings, and the costumes, did not evoke the period of the play – and they do - the three ducks on the wall would fulfil this role perfectly. Significantly they are flying in the direction of the door to the kitchen, as if they are trying to escape from their depressing surroundings.
The whole cast gave fine performances. Sheila Hancock's Meg was very sympathetic in her smiling simple-mindedness and her apparent lack of engagement with the real world, whilst Petey (Alan Williams) was noticeably concerned to protect her from learning that Stanley had been abducted. Nicholas Woodeson's Goldberg, though concealing his real nature beneath a down-to-earth geniality, rather than the urbane charm sometimes seen, was still terrifying when he revealed it, and Lloyd Hutchinson's McCann was clearly new to his job (whatever that was) and found its requirements so disturbing he could not wait to get it over with.
Most intriguing of all was Justin Salinger's Stanley who was by no means an obvious victim but had a much more complex personality, hinting at violent, perhaps even psychopathic, tendencies and probably being close to a complete mental breakdown even before Goldberg and McCann arrived. I wondered, in fact, just what his own role had been in whatever "organisation" he had escaped from!
In the half-century since that unfortunate debut production, The Birthday Party has triumphantly fulfilled Harold Hobson's positive predictions for its future and its standing is only enhanced by this wonderful anniversary staging. The play's very happy return to the Lyric ends soon – invite yourself to its own birthday party while you can!
- Janet Polson
17 May 08
It missed the mark for me, as simple as that. A year or so ago there was a wonderful production in the West End with Eileen Atkins as Meg, Geoffrey Hutchins as Petey, Paul Ritter as Stanley, and Henry Goodman as Goldberg. Aiden Gillen also appeared as the side kick McCann. I am sorry to say but I forget who played Lulu? Anyway, it was a far superior production. This one appeared to have all the ingredients, but didn't come together. I hear the Evening Standard reviewer has awarded it five stars! - WHY! Ms Hancock, who is a capable and fine actress, missed the mark with her portrayal of Meg entirely. It was this play and in particular the production which featured Eileen Atkins that turned Pinter around for me and let me enjoy his very particular style of writing. I would never consider Pinter a great writer (ooh! sacrilege!) too much of smoke and mirrors about him for my liking, but never the less he is an interesting writer. This production however just doesn't do him justice at all. Better luck next time. - rds
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