As birthday parties go, there is none more terrifying than the one celebrated by Stanley, the lodger in a run-down boarding house on the south coast in Harold Pinter‘s second full-length play.
The fact that it might not in fact be his birthday is just one of the more unsettling, discombobulating elements of a drama that 60 years since it was first seen still has the power to disconcert. It’s outlines are both clear and blurred, like a smudged photograph. You’re never sure exactly what is going on as perky Meg and slow-moving Petey welcome two strangers into the house they share with Stanley.
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. When it does, we are in a room, fashioned by the Quay Brothers, that is both realistic in its detail – the peeling, heavy green wall paper, the knick-knacks on the mantelpiece – and yet surreal in its impact. Hugh Vanstone’s impeccable lighting tracks the course of one day into the next, the queasy morning light seeping in through lace-curtained windows, moving to rich sunset and then to shadows and torchlit darkness as the party gets underway.
The characters are equally clearly delineated in a series of beautifully-detailed performances. 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. When she goes too far, he silences her with a movement. Jones plays him beautifully, finding different beats in his shifting stories of his past. It is typical of Pinter that this strange man is a pianist. The mix of emotions Jones finds in the sentence: "I played a concert once." Long pause. "At Lower Edmonton" sums up the richness of his characterisation.
When the mysterious Goldberg, played by Stephen Mangan, and McCann in the shape of Tom Vaughan-Lawlor arrive, the force of their power filling the room, Stanley initially stands up to them, thinking his mixture of bluster, evasion and hidden strength is a match for their authoritarian tendencies. Their determined wearing him down is achieved not by violence but by attrition. Rickson repeatedly places Stanley with his back to the audience as if he no longer matters; you see his confidence seeping away.
Vaughan-Lawlor is a frightening McCann, whether resolutely tearing strips from a newspaper or snapping Stanley’s glasses in a gesture of malice that brought gasps from the audience. As Goldberg, Mangan is smoothly controlling though slightly too self-aware. He never dives into the play in the way that Pearl Mackie in the thankless task of the neighbour Lulu does. She brings more than you could ever expect to the part – wariness, enjoyment, disillusion, fear – whereas Mangan skates along Goldberg’s surface.
He’s very funny though, as is the whole play. There’s a danger in writing about Pinter of making him sound joyless but The Birthday Party constantly surprises by the sheer brilliance of the dialogue, those dances of call and response that are so English in their references (the MCC, Boots, library books, Maidstone) so specific in their terms, yet universal in the sense of threat they convey.
If you haven’t seen the play before, it still works like a thriller, its outcome as uncertain as everything else about it. If you know it, you can appreciate the construction, the way that the screw tightens through three perfectly structured acts, the tricks of memory and hope that mean stories are repeated in different ways.
At this distance, The Birthday Party feels less like a comedy of menace (as Irving Wardle famously described it) and more like a dark threnody for a lost Eden, a place that never quite existed, a past that everyone remembers as golden and perfect, false memories so powerful that they override the ability to live in the present.
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. In the confusing days of Brexit Britain, Pinter looks like a prescient prophet, a soothsayer of national doom; his observations of human nature as gripping and relevant as ever.
The Birthday Party runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre to 14 April.