Harold Pinter’s modern classic, The Birthday Party, is 47 this year. Its first London outing, at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958, closed after only eight performances thanks to an almost universal critical panning - only Harold Hobson recognised the originality of the writing. Thankfully, though, it proved rather more popular with subsequent audiences and has enjoyed regular productions ever since, this current incarnation arriving at the West End’s Duchess via Birmingham and a brief regional tour.
In the play, Pinter presents us with a supremely dysfunctional living arrangement: Meg and Petey run a boarding house in which Stanley is their only inmate, although the place serves as a prison of sorts for all three, trapped in their own mundane lives. Petey is a deckchair attendant while wife Meg keeps house and takes exceptional pride in the standard of her cornflakes. Their patterns and habits provide a semblance of safety, even extending to their conversations captured by Pinter with humdrum repetitive brilliance. They don’t even have to listen to one another any more.
But if these two are odd, it’s Stanley who’s the real worry. A grown man and ex-pianist, he remains in his pyjamas all day, seemingly suffering from depression, and has an ambiguous mother/lover relationship with Meg that’s a Freudian field day. Is he hiding out? And if so, from what or whom? Well, very possibly from Goldberg and McCann, two men who show up to stay (a rare event) on what happens to be Stanley’s birthday (perhaps). But have they really come to take him away?
Pinter uses this absurd, nightmarish situation to explore his reccurring themes of power and the tyranny of those who wield it. In Lindsay Posner’s assured production, what comes across most strongly is the characters’ need to talk, to fill the void in typical Beckettian fashion, regardless of whether anyone is listening or hearing what they say. A sudden blackout in the middle of the piece drives home the point. Suddenly the characters have to listen intently –and we too have to sharpen our senses to try and guess what’s going on.
Of the show’s star billing, one half delivers unflinchingly. Eileen Atkins is incredible as Meg, an innocent girl in an old woman’s body. Her naivety transforms moments that could be grotesque into ones that are extremely touching. Henry Goodman’s Goldberg is a real entertainer, vain and charismatic, but he lacks the dark quality necessary to fully convince of Goldberg’s menace.
Elsewhere in a production filled with strong performances, Finbar Lynch stands out as McCann. So often played as a foil, a sounding board to Goldberg, here McCann creates a complex and detailed characterisation. It’s a hilarious performance, and Lynch so entirely inhabits his character it’s hard to take your eyes off him whenever he’s on stage.
All in all, Posner and his cast really ‘serve the text’, resulting in an undiluted, no-nonsense production. This is Pinter as it should be done.