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Theatre review: The Birthday Party

Toby Jones shines in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, says our critic John Nathan

Harold Pinter Theatre

    Toby Jones and Zoe Wanamaker
    Toby Jones and Zoe Wanamaker (Picture: Johan Persson)

    In the theatre that, in 2011, was named after him there is the sense of Harold Pinter’s first full-length play finding its home. Ian Rickson’s production is almost definitive. It contrasts markedly with Jamie Lloyd’s 2015 revival of The Homecoming which gave that play a cinematic and surreal makeover that seemed to circumvent the need to explain its mysteries.

    Here, though, Rickson goes for a no-holds-barred naturalism that presents this play’s strange and unsettling goings on as perfectly normal, which is, after all, Pinter’s point.

    With wallpaper peeling down at the seams, the shadowy interior design (by Quay Brothers) of a Brighton boarding house conveys musty decay. The establishment’s one guest is Stanley, played by Toby Jones, a reclusive lodger “with a small private income” who is mothered almost to the point of incest by his married landlady Meg, played by Zoë Wanamaker.

    Wanamaker is very good, though I’ve always wondered what attracts an actress of her calibre to this role. Unlike her husband Petey – a terrific Peter Wight who allows his character’s latent decency to emerge – Meg never catches on to the sinister events that she becomes part of. And enjoyable though Stephen Mangan is as the yiddishe hoodlum Goldberg, he’s always a notch more funny than frightening.

    Jones is the casting triumph here. His Stanley is the worm that turned. Goldberg and his tight-suited heavy McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) have arrived to turn him back again. From every pore, Jones exudes the fear and fight of a fugitive, although from what we can never quite be sure.

     

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