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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
The Birthday Party
by Charlotte Loveridge

But a birthday, I always feel, is a great occasion, taken too much for granted these days. What a thing to celebrate - birth! Like getting up in the morning. Marvellous! --- Goldberg
Eileen Atkins as Meg and Henry Goodman as Goldberg
Eileen Atkins as Meg and Henry Goodman as Goldberg (Photo: Nobby Clarke )
For Pinter's Stanley Webber (Paul Ritter), the celebrations which are portrayed in The Birthday Party are far from marvellous. Anxious to avoid any commemoration, Stanley must nevertheless endure this particular socially-enforced ritual with intense humiliation and irrevocable chagrin. This compelling play has many of Pinter's distinguishing dramatic features: the imperfectly understood past, the unsettling and elliptical power struggles, and the actions and scenes which seem full of symbolic although elusive significance.

The set perfectly represents Pinter's view of the festering, neglected home. The sprawling beige room is surrounded by decaying floral chintz wallpaper and embodies shabby but commonplace disrepair. Tall, uncovered wood beams extend the room upwards, providing a sense of vague oppression.

Eileen Atkins plays Meg, the landlady of this scarcely viable seaside boarding house. In an entirely convincing and skilful performance, Meg's simplistic, trite and repetitive remarks seem to sum up her limited, inane existence. Paul Ritter executes a fantastic performance as Stanley, the morosely listless lodger who is not motivated enough to change out of his pyjamas. Crushed by the devastating power of his unresolved past, Paul Ritter demonstrates his versatility with an astoundingly unrecognisable transformation.

Goldberg (Henry Goodman) is one of Pinter's typical dynamic figures. Like Mick in The Caretaker, he is extremely articulate but also domineering and aggressive. Goldberg's flair and charm enchant Meg and neighbour Lulu (Sinead Mathews) but he reveals an incredibly sinister predisposition as he pinions, mortifies and appropriates Stanley. His malevolent double act with "his bloodhound" McCann (Finbar Lynch) makes Meg's clumsily intrusive nurturing of Stanley look motherly. They assault Stanley with breathtaking stichomythia and verbal attack. For example, Goldberg tells him "You're dead. You can't live, you can't love. You're dead. You're a plague gone bad. There's no juice in you. You're nothing but an odour!" McCann meticulously concentrates on ripping strips from the newspaper, a pointlessly destructive occupation which exemplifies the two visitors' indefinable threat.

The eponymous party itself is perfectly staged, emphasizing the sharp distinction between the superficial congratulatory atmosphere and the audience's awareness of this vague menace. Meg wears a ludicrously flouncy party dress and clearly enjoys the festivity. Stanley, however, sits alone and silent with his head bowed as the others chatter and laugh.

Meg's equable husband Petey (Geoffrey Hutchings) is the only character to recognize Goldberg's sinister power over the now broken-down Stanley. His futile attempt to challenge the intruders culminates in the line: "Don't let them tell you what to do." This is a classic Pinter moment, where the only good in humanity that we are allowed to see is ineffectual.

This production is excellently directed by Lindsay Posner, who captures every emotional shade of Pinter's play. The characters are all played with professional expertise and, although none are particularly likeable, the audience is drawn into this micro-society of victims and victimisers. Enigmatically thought-provoking, there is a strong but impenetrable sense of dislocation. There is no catharsis or nobility to this tragedy, but instead the absolute bleakness of commonplace life.

The London premiere of The Birthday Party in 1958 was received with almost entirely negative reviews. One critic decided that the dialogue was just "non-sequiturs, half-gibberish, and lunatic ravings," whilst another began with the headline "Sorry, Mr Pinter, you're just not funny enough." With the theatrical world now more attuned to Pinter's mundanely tragic vision of humanity, this production from the Birmingham Rep certainly fares better with an arresting although far from comfortable experience.

For details about Harold Pinter's life, style and other plays, including links to reviews, see our Pinter Backgrounder.

The Birthday Party
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Lindsay Posner

Starring: Eileen Atkins, Henry Goodman, Paul Ritter
With: Geoffrey Hutchings, Sinead Matthews, Finbar Lynch
Design: Peter McKintosh
Lighting: Hartley T. A. Kemp
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with one 20 min interval
Box Office: 0870 890 1103
Booking to 9th July 2005
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 26th April 2005 performance at the Duchess, Catherine Street, London WC2B 5LA (Tube: Covent Garden)
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