Review Round-Ups

Did the critics celebrate The Birthday Party?

Find out what the reaction was to the 60th anniversary production of Harold Pinter’s masterpiece

Sarah Crompton, WhatsOnStage


"Ian Rickson directs this revival with all his customary intelligence and care. It holds you in its twists and turns from the moment you glimpse Stanley, striking a match in the dark before the curtain rises."

" Zoë Wanamaker invests Meg with an ever-hopeful energy, a delicate, rapid movement of her head and neck defining the optimism she clings to, but revealing the uncertainty beneath. As Petey, Peter Wight is slow and watchful, understanding everything but saying little. Yet he gives his vital line – "Don't let them tell you what to do" – with the melancholy power of a universal warning."

"Toby Jones' Stanley first appears like a tousle-headed child; Meg's flirtatious relationship with him is both tolerated and resisted. There's edge and violence already lurking behind his spectacled-eyes, however. "

"The Birthday Party was a flop when it was first performed, closing after eight performances. Yet in the succeeding years it has increasingly come to feel as if it sums up the history of the 20th century in a single room."

Michael Billington, The Guardian


"Derided on its debut in 1958, 60 years on The Birthday Party has lost none of its capacity to intrigue. In Ian Rickson‘s starry production, it emerges not simply as a rep thriller filtered through a European sensibility – a cross between Agatha Christie and Kafka, as a German director once said – but as a play of intense psychological realism."

"Ian Rickson immediately establishes the plausibility of the situation. Meg and Petey, who own the house, are often played as cartoon grotesques. Here, however, there is a key moment when Zoë Wanamaker’s trim, doting Meg and Peter Wight’s sturdily reliable Petey exchange wistful glances over the breakfast table about the son they never had."

"Toby Jones is not the first actor to play Stanley as a defiant rebel rather than a passive victim: what he brings to the role is the air of a tantrum-filled child whose psychological development, like his physical freedom, is sadly arrested."

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph


"The beauty of Ian Rickson’s superlative revival – marking the 60th anniversary since The Birthday Party‘s notorious premiere at the Lyric, Hammersmith, when it closed in a week, following derisive, dismissive notices – is that it powerfully makes the case for the play’s since-gilded status and confirms afresh that it’s a darkly comic masterpiece without in any way trying overtly to spruce it up for today’s audiences."

"Visually meticulous, the production is attentive to every word, every nuance (and, yes, every pause) in the text – as well as throwing in seagull caws, dog barks, ominous tolling bells and melancholy washes of music too."

"In short, Rickson’s approach – nominally old-fashioned as it is – makes you see things as if new-minted. And while Stephen Mangan initially looks like he’ll struggle to fill shoes memorably occupied by the author in the 1987 BBC recording – his smile is so broad he could pass for a softy – he looms ever larger over proceedings, as he and McCann stun their prey with brilliantly timed electro-convulsive repartee, becoming ever more terrifying, and peculiar."

Ann Treneman, The Times


"There is an extravaganza of talent on that stage. Zoë Wanamaker is absolutely terrific as Meg, the landlady whose conversation is on endless repeat as she fusses over her husband, Petey, a deckchair attendant, and flirts with their only guest, Stanley, a permanent resident of nowhere."

"Toby Jones is mesmerising as the shambolic Stanley, always wearing at least one part of his pyjamas, his face as crumpled as a shar pei, his demeanour stuck on grumpy…Stephen Mangan is electrifying, by turns matey, delusional, bombastic, charming. He is the psycho-guest from hell but you cannot take your eyes off him as he flashes a megawatt smile. "Every one of my senses is at its peak!" he cries."

"The play’s supposed to be the star here but the cast, and especially Mangan, steal the show."

Natasha Tripney, The Stage


"Though neither of the female roles are particularly rewarding, Zoe Wanamaker and Pearl Mackie do as much with them as they can. As landlady Meg, there’s poignancy in Wanamaker’s repetitive prattle about cornflakes, her puppyish eagerness to please and her tottering tipsiness. Mackie, meanwhile, brings a degree of resistance to Lulu – a character who, in terms of the play, pretty much exists just to be threatened with sexual violence.

"Ian Rickson’s production takes its time establishing its chosen tone of slightly queasy naturalism, of milk on the turn. The Quay Brothers’ detailed set is one of gothic domesticity and gentile dilapidation, the gloomy wallpaper seemingly engaged in an act of escape, peeling away from the walls."

"Toby Jones is a magnetic stage actor – the man can even make the act of eating a bowl of soggy cornflakes compelling. The last scene in which a scrubbed, suited, near-catatonic Stanley is led away to an unknown fate, while life winds on as before, is particularly unnerving. "

Quentin Letts, Daily Mail


"Sixty years on, Harold Pinter’s absurdist The Birthday Party is starting to creak like the floorboards of a cheap boarding house."

"The play’s latest West End production, directed respectfully by Ian Rickson, has a lot going for it — a sumptuous cast and handsome set."

"But the language, so key to Pinter, and the setting now belong to a different era. They are as dated as Oscar Wilde’s plays were in 1957 when Pinter wrote this."

"Pinter addicts will find plenty to relish. Zoe Wanamaker is on tremendous form as Meg, the dotty, vulnerable landlady of the boarding house where the runty Stanley (Toby Jones) has taken refuge."

Paul Taylor, The Independent


"Ian Rickson is a skilled Pinter hand; not only does he have excellent revivals of Betrayal and Old Times to his credit, but he directed the playwright himself in a masterly performance of Krapp's Last Tape. He knows better than to give this latest piece the kind of surreal make-over that Jamie Lloyd gave to The Homecoming recently."

"This a production that finds fresh colours in the play. Zoe Wanamaker and Peter Wight are superb as Meg and Petey, offering far more than grotesque caricature. There's an undercurrent of wistfulness in Meg's prattling vacancy – the sense that she is a childless woman who yearns for a male child and now coyly mothers her sole tenant to the verge of incest."

"Peter Wight beautifully suggests Petey's decency and the terrible shock to his system when he realises that he has been powerless to help. A richly eloquent production – not to be missed. "

The Birthday Party runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre to 14 April.