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.
- by Theo Bosanquet