A new production of The Birthday Party emphasises its roots in the grim reality of post-war Britain
When Harold Pinter wrote The Birthday Party, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had just sprung at the throats of the theatre-going public, belting home its message of class tension and social conflict through the brutal invective of Jimmy Porter. The Birthday Party, with its themes of shifting identity and multiple unreliable narrators, bemused audiences and underwhelmed most of the critics. “Sorry Mr Pinter,” sniffed Milton Shulman in the Evening Standard, “you’re just not funny enough.” The Guardian bemoaned “gibberish and non-sequiturs” and the Lord Chancellor, amateur critic as well as keen censor, slammed it as “insane and pointless”, with “a fashionable flavouring of blasphemy”. The offending line was: “Thy Kingston come, thy Wimbledon”, which hardly sounds like sacrilege on a grand scale.
But a handful of alert observers relished the uncomfortable sojourn in a crumbling boarding house on the South Coast. It would help Pinter’s fame as a writer who could combine a talent for absurdity culled from Kafka and Bruno Schulz with an ear for the more commonplace oddities of everyday speech and the grim predictabilities of English life at the margins — fried bread, trips to Boots, deckchairs and Fuller’s beer.
Ian Rickson’s production at the Harold Pinter Theatre, which runs until April 14, makes the most of the inspissated gloom. In the boarding house run (loosely) by dotty Meg (Zoe Wanamaker), with sulky Stanley (Toby Jones) as her aimless house-guest, Jones is majestically horrible in the early scenes — a tinpot recluse, whose foreshortened features and cockiness hint at an insecurity that will be exposed, as two mysterious visitors descend like a Nemesis with East End accents.
Pinter originally denied that the cryptic drama was political — probably an attempt to delineate himself among the Angry Young Men — and his influences here owe more to European theatre of the absurd than realism.
Yet it is hard-wired in the 1950s, not least in pre-empting The Organisation Man, William Whyte’s influential manual of workplace hierarchies and their psychological impact.
Pinter’s dislike of organisations, criminal, corporate or religious, shone through. Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) are thugs, in the service of a mysterious cause which Stanley has either betrayed or absconded from in the “nosiness which brought me here”.
Inexplicable actions and grievances add up to a menacing totality. The essence of Pinter done well is that it makes us edgy without quite knowing why, and this production adeptly secures that feeling of dread, interlaced with a painful comedy of manners.
Wanamaker’s dozy Meg is half-grotesque, half-pitiful — with a sprinkling of self-interest, exhibiting the kind of pre-senile vagueness of the lonely. The echoes of childlessness are nicely brought out in the Pinteresque spaces between words, when Meg and her lumpen husband Petey (Peter Wight) exchange wistful glances at the mention of a little boy.
My initial suspicion was that Wanamaker could be too posh and arch for the role of downtrodden Meg, but from her first inane exchanges with Petey about whether there is anything in the newspaper (apparently not), she is a winning blend of the maddening, distracted and pathetic. In the ghastly party scene, flown with cheap Scotch, she praises “the good people” gathered to toast Stanley — a glaring dramatic irony and the one point in the action where we are wholeheartedly on her side.
The gloomy set (by the Quay brothers, who have also brought Bruno Schulz’s work to wider audiences as animators) is peeling flock wallpaper and unused, random chairs covered in dust.
One Pinter expert I bumped into after the first night questioned whether the casting was the right way round — an intriguing thought, since Toby Jones excels as playing psychotic baddies (such as the serial killer in the last series of Sherlock), while Mangan has traded on the lovably gauche Jewish character in the TV comedy Episodes and film comedy. It surely is a broad career if you get to act in the Postman Pat movies and play the enthusiastically violent Goldberg in The Birthday Party.
If he struggles to exude physical menace, Mangan makes up for it with a brilliant demotic grasp of how to deliver Pinter’s fantastical, disturbing riffs.
It is more fashionable now to see Goldberg and McCann as cyphers for social and religious orthodoxy, and McCann does exude a kind of UKIP-y cod nostalgia about a petit-bourgeois reality that never was: “Honour thy father and thy mother. All along the line, the line, McCann — and you can do no wrong.”
But look at The Hothouse, written around the same time, and it’s hard not to catch in this droll, terrifying duo the dread of unexpected visitors in the Soviet Union in the years before Stalin’s death. These are the echoes that dim with time. Yet the abiding point of Pinter, beyond the famous pauses, is that today’s audiences can remember and explore — if we choose to.