NOBODY would wish to mark the anniversary of their birth in the way Stanley does in Harold Pinter’s brilliant play The Birthday Party. It is a party of nightmare proportions from which the dishevelled and shrivelled Stanley emerges a broken man.
But while the audience may be disturbed by Stanley’s brutal birthday fate at the hands of hoodlums, there is no doubt that Ian Rickson’s latest version of The Birthday Party is theatrical entertainment at its very best. The play may be 60 years young, but Rickson ensures it has not lost its strange but enthralling mix of humour, everyday mundaneness and undercurrent of malevolence. The fact that it is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre is also quite a nice touch.
The verbal exchanges resemble rapid machine gun fire. Indeed, you could probably enjoy the play as much blindfolded – blindfolds play a big part in the play – given it is the words that provide all the action. This play is enthused with zest, thanks to a stellar cast and Rickson’s masterful direction.
It is set in the front room of a boarding house in the 1950’s, somewhere on the south coast. It is a pretty run down establishment and it is quite obvious that the owners Petey (Peter Wight, dependable as ever) and Meg (an exceptional Zoe Wanamaker) do not have many pennies to rub together. Petey is a deckchair attendant while Meg ‘runs’ the boarding house.
Their verbal exchanges are repetitive and mundane. ‘What time did you go out this morning, Petey?’ asks Meg. ‘Same time as usual,’ comes back the response.
‘Was it dark?’ asks Meg. ‘No, it was light.’ ‘But sometimes you go out in the morning and it’s dark,’ persists Meg. ’That’s in the winter,’ responds Petey patiently while reading his newspaper and scoffing down his bowl of cornflakes.’
‘Oh, in winter,’ says Meg. ‘Yes, it gets light later in winter,’ replies Petey. ‘Oh’ says Meg. She then serves him up the main course – fried bread.
When it comes to brain cells, Meg has been given few. She also seems to think that she is still attractive (she is not).
When it comes to patience, Peter has been over-endowed. A marriage in name only. Bound together by thick strands of excruciating boredom.
Into the living room steps their one and only guest Stanley (a magnificent Toby Jones). Although he is a pianist of some repute, Stanley is a nasty piece of work. He is the equivalent of a verbal cobra – happy to strike out at Meg at will, berating her for the staleness of the cornflakes and the sourness of the milk (she parries his hostility remarkably well, doting on him like the son she never had). He also looks horribly messed up (if he saw himself in the mirror he would probably run a mile). Talk about getting out of the bed the wrong side.
The ante is upped when two guests turn up at Meg and Petey’s establishment (a rare event) – motor mouth Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a proverbial pot of Irish water about to boil over.
Goldberg rattles off sentences at the pace of a successful speed dater on speed. Charming, flattering, tall, brilliant white teeth (an advert for Colgate), smartly dressed and awfully handsome (it is Mangan after all). But underneath the charm is an obvious dark side. Goldberg is someone you just do not mess with.
McCann, a former priest, is a man of few words and keeps himself in check by tearing strips from Petey’s paper. But make no mistake he is on the edge. You would not want to be in a dark room with him, or provoke him. He is an incendiary bomb waiting to explode.
When Meg confirms it is Stanley’s birthday, a party is arranged for the evening – an event which unfolds like a horror show. Lots of alcohol, ensuing memory lapse (on Meg’s part), broken birthday presents (namely a drum that Meg had bought Stanley and which at one stage he plays demonically), a game of Blind Man’s Buff that goes disastrously wrong, a near strangulation, forced sex and the physical and mental breakdown of Stanley.
During the night, stallion Goldberg also has his wicked way with Lulu (Pearl Mackie) – a ‘friend’ of Stanley, Meg and Petey – who is easily taken in by his charm and library of smooth talk.
It all ends the next day with Stanley being frogmarched off to an uncertain end by Goldberg and sidekick McCann. ‘Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do?’ says Petey as he disappears, probably for good.
Lulu also tells the predatory Goldberg what she thinks of him – ‘you used me for a night. A passing fancy.’ Goldberg’s retort is cutting: ‘you taught me things a girl shouldn’t know before she’s been married at least three times.’ Razor sharp as is the entire script and cast (Mangan and Vaughan-Taylor are wonderful partners in crime).
In a nutshell, The Birthday Party is a masterful play that is required viewing for lovers of the arts. You will not be disappointed. Sit back – shut your eyes if you want to – and drink it all in.
Petey: Peter Wight
Meg: Zoe Wanamaker
Stanley: Toby Jones
Lulu: Pearl Mackie
Goldberg: Stephen Mangan
McCann: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor
Director: Ian Rickson