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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
at Harold Pinter Theatre

COMMON MYSTERIES
By JOHN NATHAN

  Zoe Wanamaker and Toby Jones/ Ph: Johan Persson

Two of the most recent West End productions of Harold Pinter plays illustrate contrasting approaches to the dramatist. Two years ago Jamie Lloyd’s version of The Homecoming was a stylised production. Instead of the north London house in which the play is usually set, the action took place against a background of infinite blackness with boundaries of the living room marked out by electrified red lines. Everything was suspended in a kind of surreal purgatory. This didn’t so much answer the pressing questions thrown up by Pinter – such as why a woman as capable as Ruth would choose to live her life in a house full of sexually predatory male losers – as avoid them. For the surreal needs no answer.

However, Ian Rickson’s new production of Pinter’s first full-length 1957 play – itself a sort of homecoming, with it appearing at the Harold Pinter theatre – goes the other way. Here the aesthetic is naturalistic to the core. Where Lloyd’s production had no walls, here the wallpaper is peeling. You can almost smell the decay, and not just of the building, but of a marriage too.

As the establishment’s landlady, Zoë Wanamaker’s Meg communicates in conversational cul-de-sacs. “You’re here then,” is on typical and patently obvious declaration directed at her mild-mannered husband Petey (Peter Wight). 

Life revolves around the couple’s semi-permanent lodger Stanley, played by Toby Jones like a surly middle-aged teenager. This makes sense of the child-shaped hole in Meg’s life, which, when the subject of children comes up, Wanamaker evokes with a silence that is pregnant with what might have been. More disturbingly, it also makes sense of her almost incestuous devotion to Stanley. 

However, it has never been clear to me what attracts actresses of the calibre of Wanamaker to the role of Meg. Meg is the one person in this play who has no inkling that there is something sinister about her two new guests, the sharp suited Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and his coiled minder McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor). She blithely becomes part of the trap into which her beloved lodger must fall, but she is so thinly drawn psychologically, it is left to female actors to fill the gaps.

Meanwhile Mangan is, as always, extremely watchable. He is as brilliant at comedy as drama. But his specialty is that of victim, not perpetrator, and here his Jewish hoodlum – who we infer has arrived at Meg’s house to return Stanley to an unspecified former life, and to a reckoning that awaits – lacks the required murderous threat. Nor could I quite believe that this Goldberg is vicious enough to have violated or, as it is suggested here, raped Meg’s flirty friend Lulu (Pearl Mackie) on the night of Stanley’s birthday party. So as this absence of threat asserts itself, the evening loses tension. 

The performance that will stay in the mind is the quietest. Wight’s Petey is the embodiment of benign apathy until, seeing the damage that is being done to Stanley, he confronts Goldberg in a display of stirring decency.

As always, Pinter leaves many questions hanging, among them about Stanley’s past, the truth of Goldberg’s nostalgic memories and what it is he gets out of ordering McCann to blow into his mouth. But in this naturalistic setting they exist as perfectly common mysteries, which after all is surely Pinter’s point.

 


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