Review: The Birthday Party

By John Nathan, May 16, 2008

Lyric Hammersmith, London W6

This Monday it will be 50 years to the day since Harold Pinter’s play received its premiere at the Hammersmith Lyric. It did not go down well. The Manchester Guardian described Pinter’s dialogue as “half-gibberish and lunatic ravings”; the Evening Standard’s Milton Shulman concluded that, although the plot and identity of his characters may be clear to Pinter, “he has certainly not divulged them to me.” The only positive review came from Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times. “The most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London,” he wrote.

David Farr’s solid production is a fitting tribute to both play and playwright. Fitting, that is, in the sense that all the elements are present and correct. Jon Bausor’s evocative set of a seaside boarding house is almost grubby enough to serve Pinter’s later classic The Caretaker. As the loner tenant, Stanley, Justin Salinger has the victimised air of a hangdog Tony Hancock. And the hilariously mundane exchanges between landlady Meg (Sheila Hancock) and her deckchair-attendant husband Petey (Alan Williams) prime the play for its sudden veer from the comic to the sinister when the preying duo Goldberg (Nicholas Woodeson) and McCann (Lloyd Hutchinson) arrive on the scene.

Woodeson’s squat East End hardman — think of a Jewish Bob Hoskins — stalks and, during Stanley’s eponymous party, skips menacingly across the stage. And after 50 years the play’s most moving moment remains undiminished — when Goldberg and McCann are challenged by the passive Petey who emerges as a figure of English decency.

Yet all this merely confirms what we already know about this mysterious work. As Pinter recently said, a story about two strangers who take a man away and destroy him, happens every day. It is as relevant now as it ever was. But this anniversary was a chance to re-imagine the piece beyond its period setting. The avant-garde director Katie Mitchell has done as much with both modern and ancient classics. Fifty years after its debut, it would have been more interesting to see Pinter’s play get similar treatment. (Tel: 0871 22 117 29)

Last updated: 11:04am, May 20 2008