The Birthday Party at the Piccadilly Theatre

It s been 42 years since the first performance of Harold Pinter\'s modern masterpiece, and it s pleasing to note that, judging by the number of walkouts, it still hasn t lost its capacity to shock. It s hard to say why Joe Harmston s production caused any great bafflement, though - this is a Birthday Party played very straight, accentuating the comedy and downplaying the inherent terror of the play.

In a dingy seaside boarding house (or is it?), Stanley, an out-of-work pianist, is lodging with Petey and Meg, with whom he might or might not be having an affair. Two men turn up, Goldberg and McCann, whom Stanley might have known previously (or might not) and invite themselves to Stanley s birthday party - even though it might not be his birthday - and terrorise Stanley into incoherence.

This is a play bristling with menace, or at least, it should be. One of the piece s strengths is the way it plays on the breakdown of such an ordinary man in such an ordinary setting. Perhaps this would have even greater resonance in those countries where a midnight knock on the door can have such tragic consequences.

Anyone who still thinks that a Pinter play is just an excuse for a long-winded series of monologues, punctuated by long pauses (or even a long series of pauses punctuated by a few monologues) will be astonished by this production. With three acts all presented one after the other, and no interval, there s little opportunity to observe the skilful way that Pinter builds up to a crescendo of terror.

But this is a first-class cast that rises to the occasion brilliantly. Prunella Scales Meg is a masterpiece of lower-middle class voluptuousness; pawing Stanley s bare chest, she makes sure that we re in no doubt about the true nature of their relationship. Barry Jackson s Petey is an amiable old stick who can barely comprehend the mayhem going on around him - until it s too late. Timothy West s Goldberg is an avuncular storyteller, frequently pausing to wonder at his own rhetoric - but, while, this makes for a few laughs, one cannot understand why Stanley is in such terror of him.

The real standout performances are Nigel Terry s McCann - a monosyllabic time bomb of a man, whose initially pleasant demeanour masks a terrifying interior. And best of all is Steve Pacey s Stanley - an irascible, strutting braggart at the beginning of the play who, by angrily confronting Goldberg and McCann, does not go gently into the night. His transformation at the end, broken by his treatment at the hands of McCann, genuinely shocks.

The Birthday Party is a great play which can withstand almost any treatment, and although this production is taken a bit too quickly to be really effective, it is still well worth seeing.

Maxwell Cooter