It’s been 55 years since Harold Pinter’s arguably most famous play opened in London, bamboozling both critics and audiences and unceremoniously closing after just eight performances. Yet its legend has grown, becoming one of the most celebrated British plays of the century, despite Pinter’s admirable stance never to explain anything about this most enigmatic of works. “The play is itself” as he says in a letter to the original director, reprinted in the programme notes.
The Birthday Party is still the most divisive of plays. For everyone who embraces the sense of creeping menace, there’s someone who’s disturbed by the claustrophobic atmosphere. For everyone who chuckles at the gruesomely funny dialogue, there’s someone non-plussed by the non-sequiturs. For everyone gripped by the tale of Petey, Mags and their boarder Stanley, there’s someone who can’t wait to pack up at the interval and leave. It’s impossible to leave a production and shrug in indifference.
As ever with productions at the Royal Exchange, the design is memorable and ingenious. A 1950s boarding house has beautifully recreated in the round, with a roof that lowers itself menacingly towards the cast at the end of each act. Although the period detail isn’t adhered to precisely – that’s a suspiciously modern bottle of Heinz Tomato Sauce on Mags’ table – we’re immediately ushered into this strange, unsettling world.
Pinter’s play recounts the strange tale of Stanley, the sole boarder at Petey and Mags’ seaside boarding house and his visit by two menacing men, Goldberg and McCann. What follows next is often up to the audience’s interpretation – is this an allegory for a man’s death? Is it a study of the power of the state? Who are McCann and Goldberg? Do they even exist? It’s extremely easy to fall down the rabbit hole of theories and interpretations.
Blanche McIntyre, that consummate director of actors, has assembled a superb cast. Ed Gaghan is a pretty dazzling Stanley, engagingly portraying his journey from lazy, arrogant slob to a broken shell of a man, barking gutturally as he’s led away to meet the mysterious Monty, and Paul McCleary is equally strong in the understated role of the decent, principled Petey. Maggie Steed is also superb as Mags, striking just the right balance of the disturbing and the maternal in her relationship with Stanley, while Desmond Barrit and Keith Dumphy are magnificently sinister as Goldberg and McCann.
It’s Barrit and Dumphy who deliver one of the highlights of the production in fact, as they remorselessly interrogate Stanley with rhetorical questions, eventually causing his ultimate breakdown. They deliver Pinter’s dialogue as if playing a verbal game of ping-pong, effortlessly batting lines between each other while Gaughan stutters and squirms in his seat. You want to look away but it’s also impossible to take your eyes off the stage. The infamous scene of Blind Man’s Buff is also well-handled, coming across as malevolent and portentous as any David Lynch film.
McIntyre’s production also demonstrates how funny the play is in places. Gaughan and Steed have terrific fun with their dialogue, with Stanley’s insult of “you succulent old washing bag” given particular relish, while newcomer Danusia Samal, in the small but pivotal role of Lola, has the pleasure of delivering lines like “You quenched your ugly thirst. You taught me things a girl shouldn’t know before she’s been married at least three times”.
In McIntyre’s production every meaningful Pinter pause is preserved. The effect is often unsettling, at time even disturbing, theatre that stays with you, long after Petey’s famous cry of “Stanley, don’t let them tell you what to do” has echoed across the stage.