The Birthday Party – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Writer: Harold Pinter
Director: Michael Cabot
Reviewer:Selwyn Knight

The Birthday Party was Pinter’s second go at a full-length play. Although well received on its pre-West End tour, it opened at The Lyric, Hammersmith to critical disdain and closed after only eight performances. That could have been the end for both The Birthday Party and Pinter, but his reputation was rescued by the rave review given after the closure by The Sunday Times critic, Harold Hobson. He predicted that Pinter and his play would be heard of again and time has proved him right.

It is easy to see why audiences in 1958 might have been baffled and disturbed by the play. The characters are oddballs, there is no internal consistency: indeed, Pinter seems to go out of his way to make the events hard to follow and one leaves the theatre full of unanswered questions as events and dialogue contradict one another in almost every scene. But what Pinter does do in his writing is to transcend the requirements of a straightforward narrative, write dialogue that drips with meaning on so many levels, and present characters each on a journey, most notably, Stanley Webber.

The Birthday Party is said to represent theatre of menace, and that is certainly apt, but it is also funny. Pinter’s writing is not universally menacing; we are able to see the characters as rounded people even while not being able clearly to make out their motivations and we become comfortable enough to laugh with and at their antics.

The play is set in a seaside town, in the house of Petey and Meg where they live with their long-standing guest, Stanley. The ambiguity starts immediately – what is the relationship between these three? Meg in particular fawns over Stan, hanging on his every word and treating him almost like a son. Stan is bullying and thoroughly unpleasant, cruelly throwing Meg’s good intentions back in her face. It is clear something is not quite right in his past.

But Stan’s world is turned on its head when he hears that two men have asked to stay. He becomes anxious and withdrawn. On their arrival, Meg tells them it is Stan’s birthday and they organise a macabre party for him, during which events take disturbing turns and Stan’s descent into anxiety-driven near-catatonia is complete.

Ged McKenna and Cheryl Kennedy as the kindly and put-upon landlords, Petey and Meg, turn in solid performances. Kennedy, in particular, brings out the humour in Meg while not letting her character become ridiculous. Her affection for Stan is clear; her misguided gift for his birthday a wonderful joke that becomes part of the later disquieting turn of events.

The visitors, Goldberg and McCann, are played with relish by Jonathan Ashley and Declan Rodgers. Ashley carries an air of quiet menace all the time, his words dripping with meaning. One might never be sure exactly what that meaning is, but the tone is clear. He brings an undeniable chill to proceedings and his sleazy interest in Lulu, the young neighbour, is uncomfortable to watch. Rodgers’ McCann moves between apparent naïveté and outright nastiness in a heartbeat and, one feels, is potentially violent – can he really be a recently defrocked priest? One is never sure what to make of him and Rodgers ensures these swings are complete.

But it is Gareth Bennett-Ryan portraying Stan’s journey that is the jewel in the crown of this production. His descent from swaggering, bullying layabout to angst-ridden little boy unable to control his fate is masterful.

Bek Palmer’s set is simple and suited to a variety of venues including, as she notes, theatre in the round, lacking as it does any walls. An elevated area delineates the living room of the house with occasional sticks of furniture. It complements the action well, although the device of having a rather unnerving scene underneath that occasionally comes into view feels a little clumsy.

Michael Cabot’s direction is tight for the most part, the pace varying and the air of menace becoming almost uncomfortably tangible. Some scenes are chillingly fascinating making one feel uncomfortably voyeuristic while watching. There are also some questionable directorial decisions, however; on couple of occasions we hear action offstage and this is clumsily done, feeling rather that noise is being switched on and off to match the timings of the action onstage rather than complementing it.

But these are minor criticisms. One cannot help but share Stan’s despair and be warmed by the simple good humour of Meg and Petey, even if one is struggling to work out the whole context on the journey home.

This is a worthy addition to London Classic Theatre’s canon of classic plays on tour.

Runs until 18 June 2016 |Image: Sheila Burnett

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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