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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith


  Justin Salinger and Sheila Hancock in The Birthday Party

Harold Pinter's career-making play was dismissed by every critic but one (The Sunday Times' Harold Hobson) in its debut a half-century ago and it's scarcely less mysterious these days, notwithstanding our gathering, galloping appreciation for this writer's singular dramatic weight. David Farr's production, then, pays both welcome tribute to a seminal text from a dramatist not far off 80 even as it poses a serious aesthetic question anew: what happens when a pioneering play is allowed in performance to land in one particular lap of what ought to be a unified ensemble? On opening night, at least, you could feel a Lyric, Hammersmith audience silently applauding virtually every moment from Nicholas Woodeson in the crucial role of the mysterious, malevolent Goldberg. The price paid is any complete sense of a community unravelling at the seams that finds the seaside existence of Meg (Sheila Hancock) and Petey (Alan Williams) swallowed up by fear as the darker forces signalled by Goldberg and his sidekick, McCann (Lloyd Hutchinson) come to call.

Pinter's play has, of course, always defied explication, and there's no reason now to grant it a precise meaning, just because we've long become habituated to his portentous authorial pause. What Woodeson reminds us of so brilliantly is that a writer commended for his sense of menace can be deeply comic, as well: there's more than a touch of the Jewish vaudevillian to this Goldberg's banter with Irish ally, McCann, as the two set their sights on the fey, bespectacled Stanley (Justin Salinger), whose birthday party is being celebrated at the boarding house presided over by the permanently dim Meg. What a thing to celebrate - birth, remarks Goldberg jauntily, even though something about the comment makes you feel as if its actual intention has to do with birth's unnameable opposite. And the actor revels in the circularity of circumlocutions that renders Goldberg the life of an increasingly lethal party: How often do you meet someone it's a pleasure to meet? Woodeson previously appeared in this play when Sam Mendes staged his own National Theatre version in 1994, so the actor knows whereof its rhythms ticks. The effect has one attending every shift in tone and phrase from an admittedly shifty figure - Goldberg himself tells us that he's a man not of size but quality - even as it leaves some of the rest of the cast struggling to catch up.

That's not true of Williams's tellingly fastidious deckchair attendant Petey, who turns the play's quietest role into a poignantly muted onlooker to atrocities that have clearly only begun as the curtain falls: the actor's let him sleep is very affecting, as he urges a respite of sort on the hapless Stanley, who has been hauled off to suffer heaven knows what specific fate. (Immediately before, Petey's admonition, don't let them tell you what to do, falls on noticeably deaf ears.) If only some of this performer's restraint had carried over to Hancock, who delivers the evening's showiest part in an irritating sing-song that seems throughout to be stealing focus. Her Meg finds an unexpected humor when recoiling from the word succulent as if the adjective itself were a sort of succubus. But the isolation into which Meg retreats emerges with too self-conscious a dreaminess- Salinger's Stanley, by contrast, cuts so abusive a figure as the creepily quiescent onetime pianist that one wonders what skeletons remain in his particular, unarticulated cupboard. Or just how it is that Meg and Petey have allowed this peculiar specimen to share a home that, in Jon Bausor's surpassingly bleak desi


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