The Birthday Party – Civic Theatre, Chelmsford

Writer: Harold Pinter
Director: Michael Cabot
Reviewer: Michael Gray

The Birthday Party was Pinter’s second full-length play. Not a success in its day and still unsettling and confusing more than half a century on, but it has become a classic, worthy of inclusion in London Classic Theatre’s pantheon.

Michael Cabot’s new production is a taut, intelligent reading of the text, respectful of the dark mood behind even the most trivial interchange. Set on a raised platform, reminiscent of a boxing ring, not perhaps seen to best advantage behind the Civic’s proscenium. It’s a minimalist, realistic set by Bek Palmer, with a suggestion of skeletons beneath the floorboards. A standard lamp, a hatstand, a dark oak dresser.

Sensitively timed dialogue brings out the complex, twisted relationships between these enigmatic characters. Beginning with a pause.Domestic breakfast, mind games with the sinister strangers.

Domestic breakfast, mind games with the sinister strangers.

A fine cast, led by Cheryl Kennedy’s frustrated, fussy, flaky Meg, hinting at a more glamorous past behind the slovenly landlady in fluffy slippers and head-scarf. The belle of the ball, she recalls at the end. The other woman who ventures within these drab walls is the cipher Lulu (Imogen Wilde), an unexplained visitor who seems to be a victim of Stanley’s advances at the ghastly party of the title, and Goldberg’s attentions later that night.

Gareth Bennett-Ryan is the weak, spoiled loner Stanley, cosseted by Meg (the little boy she’d much rather have, perhaps), deliberately destroyed by the manipulative Goldberg and McCann in one of the strongest scenes – Pinter’s use of language as a weapon never bettered. Broken by the two intruders whose coming upsets him from the start, he ends up a catatonic wreck, his hands jerking and twitching as if he still had his toy drum, Meg’s musical gift for his birthday.

Jonathan Ashley is all smooth menace as the laid-back Goldberg, with Declan Rodgers as the solid, silent McCann – muscular torso, red braces. Both strikingly still in contrast to their victim’s nervous movement. Like Ben and Gus in The Dumb Waiter, they are a double act sent to do a job.

Absent from the party is Meg’s old man, the lumpen deck-chair attendant Petey, seemingly uninterested in anything beyond the morning paper and his night out with the lads from the chess club. He’s played with genial indifference by Ged McKenna.

The piece is an unsettling blend of sitcom and the theatres of the absurd and of cruelty. A more intimate space might draw us in more successfully to the banal, claustrophobic world of the seaside boarding house – if that’s where we are. But this stylish production deftly lays bare the frightening forces behind the stuccofaçade – a welcome reminder of one of 20th century’s most accomplished British works for the stage.

Runs until 9 March 2016 then continues to tour | Image: Sheila Burnett

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