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A CurtainUp London Review
The Birthday Party
by Neil Dowden
Set in an unnamed seaside town, the play begins mundanely at breakfast in the crumbling guesthouse of amiably taciturn deckchair attendant Petey (Alan Williams) and his simple-minded yet inquisitive wife Meg (Sheila Hancock). Their one guest, Stanley (Justin Salinger), has been living with them for a year, but, as the attractive girl next door Lulu (Sian Brooke) tells him, he is a "washout". However, his boringly aimless life is disturbed by the arrival of two enigmatic, vaguely threatening men, the Jewish Goldberg (Nicholas Woodeson) and the Irish McCann (Lloyd Hutchinson), who seem to be looking for him. Things come to a head during Stanley's birthday party, as the fun and games take on a far more sinister tone.
The Birthday Party bears all the hallmarks of Pinter's style. A "comedy of menace", where an atmosphere of latent violence is relieved by bizarre moments of humour, this elliptical play features naturalistic yet stylized dialogue, full of pregnant pauses and subtext, with the audience trying to decipher exactly what is going on underneath. A power struggle develops with political implications, as an individual comes into conflict with representatives of an authoritarian organization, while also featuring the Pinteresque themes of mental breakdown, erotic tension and fragmented communication.
Farr's nicely balanced production gives full rein to the play's absurdist comedy, while allowing a darkly disquietly mood to develop, so that black farce merges with gangster thriller. He is ably assisted by Jon Bausor's distorted-perspective design of a dilapidated bed and breakfast establishment with peeling wallpaper and faded furniture, and Jon Clark's expressive lighting, especially effective when menacing shadows are cast on the wall during the party.
Salinger brilliantly gives Stanley the cynical humour and vacant viciousness of a drop-out lying low, as broken inside as his glasses are on his face. Hancock gives a delightfully dotty, wonderfully warm performance as Meg, doting on Stanley both maternally and sexually, and Williams is a phlegmatic Petey with a surprising moral sturdiness. Brooke lends Lulu a little girl lost manner, with a predilection for older men that is shocked by Woodeson's Goldberg, whose loquacious bonhomie and sentimental family mythologizing masks a violent temper, while Hutchinson's forbidding but anxious McCann tears newspapers into strips to stop himself getting too worked up.
The only disappointing aspect of this production is the shortness of its run — scarcely longer than the original failed version 50 years ago! - but it's well worth seeing if you can. Many happy returns to The Birthday Party.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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