Fifty years after its infamous debut at the Lyric Hammersmith, The Birthday Party returned to the scene of its original failure this week (opening 12 May 2008, previews from 8 May) in a special anniversary production, which continues until 24 May, including a gala, hosted by author Harold Pinter himself, on the play’s actual birthday, 19 May.
The 1958 premiere production closed after just a week, having received a raft of scathing reviews. Only one critic, the Sunday Times’ Harold Hobson, spotted the potential of the young playwright, and Pinter often credits his glowing review as having saved his fledgling career.
Half a century on, current Lyric artistic director David Farr directs a cast of Sheila Hancock, who has a long association both with the Lyric and with Pinter, dating back to the 1950s when they both started out as actors (See News, 3 Apr 2008), as well as Justin Salinger (pictured with Hancock), Nicholas Woodeson, Lloyd Hutchinson, Alan Williams and Sian Brooke.
The Birthday Party centres on unemployed musician Stanley, who leads a mundane but peaceful life as the only guest living with the mumsy doting Meg and quiet agreeable Petey. When the sinister Goldberg and McCann arrive, their intentions grow progressively ominous. Everyone, from the resort owners to the unsuspecting girl next door, becomes caught up in Stanley´s peculiar birthday party.
Pinter’s first full-length play, The Birthday Party contains many of the hallmarks, such as deliberately enigmatic plotting and the famous ponderous pauses, that went on to define him as one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights.
So, 50 years on and safe in the knowledge that his reputation is secure, Pinter hardly needs Harold Hobson’s help this time around. Rather than a single good review, today’s critics gave the 50th birthday Party an almost unanimous thumbs up, many regretting the “good kicking” the piece received from their 1958 equivalents. There was praise too for the production’s performances, with Sheila Hancock singled out as “hilarious and touching” as the “terrifyingly dim landlady” Meg, and Justin Salinger gaining plaudits for his “riveting”, “venomous” and even “definitive” interpretation of her doomed lodger Stanley.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “As Harold Pinter himself said on BBC Radio on the morning of the first night of this 50th anniversary production of The Birthday Party, the play is more pertinent than ever; two mysterious men knock on the door and take someone away. It happens all the time … The abiding vigour of this astonishing debut is honoured in Hancock’s glorious, self-deluding Meg, exchanging her headscarf and medical stockings for a rose-tinted gown on party night; and the sensationally effective performances of Nicholas Woodeson and Lloyd Hutchinson as the sinister apparatchiks, the one a nostalgic little Jewish monster, the other a quietly spoken Irish husk, a spaniel-like quisling swallowed in the great maw of political corruption and affiliation.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Fifty years after it was rubbished by the overnight critics, Harold Pinter's play is revived at the exact scene of the crime. But instead of seeing it as a now-revered classic, David Farr's bold idea is to direct it as brand new, and seek to recapture something of its original shock … Salinger plays Stanley as a venomous sadist who not only terrorises his doting landlady Meg but also puts up the fiercest possible resistance to his captors … Everything about this production is strange, mysterious and unsettling. Jon Bausor's set, with its bile-coloured walls and dirt-encrusted grate, looks like a nightmare refuge. Sheila Hancock's superbly smothering, mothering Meg emerges as a tragi-comic figure in her own right who remains to the very end cocooned in a world of private fantasy. In contrast, Alan Williams, as her husband, is a shrewd observer whose benevolent altruism completely throws the two intruders … Farr gives the play the best possible birthday party by conveying the dislocating oddity that so disturbed its original critics.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (five stars) – “In 1958 this Pinter piece opened and closed within a week. Now David Farr’s brilliant, dark-night-of-the-soul production, lightened by frequent shafts of black comedy and the best version I have seen, ought to convince everyone of The Birthday Party’s classic status … Sheila Hancock’s wonderful Meg, simpleminded and skittish in her Rita Hayworth wig and floral pinafore, coos and flirts, drools and simpers over Salinger’s definitive Stanley in his flamboyant glasses, from behind which crazy eyes gaze. No actor playing the role before has made it so clear that Meg’s adored, presumably agoraphobic boarder is in the grip of some mental disturbance. His walk and expression advertise his alienated oddness … Nicholas Woodeson’s superb Goldberg, who keeps Lloyd Hutchinson’s bovine McCann under control, induces shudders of amusement with his winsome sentimentalities and silky, smiling menace. Farr thrillingly stages the birthday party festivities as a grotesque, grim comedy and the game of blind man’s buff when the lights go out, after Stanley is relieved of glasses, as if it were Agatha Christie turned sadistic and weird … A shockingly memorable night.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “Fifty years ago next Monday, Harold Pinter’s first full-length play, The Birthday Party, opened at the Lyric Hammersmith. The following morning the reviews appeared, and the critics unanimously gave it a good kicking … I’d like to think that had I been there on that famous first night, I’d have given the play a rave like Hobson, but I have a horrible suspicion that I’d actually have been among those dishing out the insults. For in this birthday revival of The Birthday Party, in the very theatre where Pinter received his baptism of fire, you can still see why most of the reviewers were so nonplussed by the play that they greeted it with bafflement and exasperation … David Farr’s production, with a down-at-heel guesthouse design by Jon Bausor that seems to encapsulate all the drabness of the Fifties, takes the play at an excessively leisurely, indeed almost reverent, pace. This is a piece that works best played fast and without an interval … I am left with the impression that if you took the cruelty and mockery out of Pinter’s work, precious little of substance would remain.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “Here's a revival to rub posthumous salt in any wounds still left in the corpses of those critics who, in May 1958, did their best to dispatch Harold Pinter's first full-length play to oblivion … That said, I've seen more trenchant productions than David Farr is staging at the Lyric. The first scene, with Meg the dim seaside landlady (Sheila Hancock) offering cornflakes and dopey conversation to her husband Petey (Alan Williams), comes across as a sneak preview of Joe Orton, with exaggerated Pete and Dud accents to match; but need it be played so slowly? It takes awfully long to establish the atmosphere of the sort of dingy B&B where you might find suicidal characters from Samuel Beckett among your fellow guests … Whatever the quality of this revival, it still shows the Nobel laureate-to-be at his most provokingly unpindownable.”
- by Theo Bosanquet