The Theatreguide.London Review
The Birthday Party
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre May 2008
It is part of theatre lore and legend that Harold Pinter's first London play was a flop, closing in a week (ironically, just before a Sunday review hailing him as a major new talent).
The Birthday Party was incomprehensible to critics and audiences raised on well-made plays in which every plot turn and motivation was spelled out. Now, of course, schoolkids study the play and write more insightful essays on it than most of the 1958 critics could.
A nondescript little man lives in an obscure seaside boarding house, idly tormenting his dim landlady. Two mysterious men appear, terrorise him, break him down, and cart him off.
What the schoolkids (and the rest of us) know now that the critics didn't then is that the point is not to try to make literal sense out of the plot events but to recognise and respond to the archetypal situation. Who among us has not at least sometimes suspected that They are out there waiting to Get Us?
Who they are and what we've done to deserve being got is irrelevant – or perhaps different for each of us. It's the shock of recognition - Oh, God, I've felt like that - that The Birthday Party is about.
Anyway, the Lyric Hammersmith, where that first failed production ran its sorry week, has mounted a short run of a fiftieth anniversary revival. It would be nice to say that this is as much a success as the original was a failure, but I'm afraid I can't.
With the exception of one glorious performance and a few random moments elsewhere, director David Farr's revival just lies there, as unmoving, uninvolving and unevocative as could be. And that is a disappointment.
The biggest thing that's missing - and Pinterites will forgive me for using this word - is menace.
The invaders Goldberg and McCann are presented entirely as comic figures (and not very successfully at that), with no real sense of danger about them.
Nicholas Woodeson's Goldberg is amiable where he should be oily, blank where he should exude the scary calm of the kind of villain who confidently doesn't have to be overt. His Jewish accent comes and goes as he or the director decide it might add to the humour of the moment.
Lloyd Hutchinson remembers McCann's Irish accent more consistently, but only rarely suggests the possibility of violence behind his stolidness.
Without a consistent air of danger about them, Goldberg and McCann actually seem out of character when they attack Justin Salinger's Stanley, and the big set piece in which they accuse him of every crime imaginable has no power or even dramatic rhythm.
Stanley is something of a nonentity - that's the point - but there has to be more of a sense of who he is than Justin Salinger gives us, or there's nothing there for the visitors to threaten and destroy.
The one saving grace of this production is Sheila Hancock's performance as the ditsy landlady Meg.
The character is written as almost unimaginably stupid, and Hancock alone in the cast is able to find a character (and not just a string of disconnected moments) there.
Her Meg half-knows how totally inadequate she is for life, and makes every human encounter - indeed, every line - a plea for reassurance.
Hancock employs a whining, wheedling tone that is both hilarious in itself and recognisably the sound of someone begging the world to notice her.
Unfortunately, she's not the centre of the play, and when you find yourself hoping everyone else will go away and bring her back on, the play is not having the effect it wants.
There's an odd kind of homage going on here, celebrating a failed production of fifty years ago with a failed production today, but that's just too much post-modern irony.
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