Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party is very, very funny, but it’s also totally doolally. The play had its London premiere at the Lyric Opera House (now the Lyric Hammersmith) in 1958. It was shut down after eight performances, thanks to a raft of disastrous reviews. It’s now considered a classic and has re-opened at the Harold Pinter Theatre for a three-month run. The stellar cast includes Zoë Wanamaker, Toby Jones, Peter Wight, Stephen Mangan, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Pearl Mackie.
The Birthday Party is set in a dilapidated boarding house in a sleepy seaside English town. Stanley Webber (Jones) is a piano player who lives with his landlords, Meg (Wanamaker) and Petey (Wight). It’s Stanley’s birthday, and a party that Meg organises for him swiftly descends into bedlam when two new guests arrive: Goldberg (Mangan) and McCann (Vaughan-Lawlor).
There’s a childlike quality to Meg who is lonely, coquette, and a bit dim. The joie de vivre has been sucked out of Stanley and Petey who lead a Groundhog Day existence. Petey repairs deck chairs for a living by the seaside, escaping the monotonous absurdity of his marriage to Meg (“how are your cornflakes, what’s the weather like, is the paper good”). He’s a faithful Labrador of a man.
Stanley is more sadistic, blowing hot and cold with Meg. He describes her as succulent one minute and on an old piece of rock cake the next. He frequently throws his toys out of the pram and aggrandizes his piano prowess which it appears is non-existent, save for a “world-class” concert in Lower Edmonton. And like its characters, the boarding house is crying out for some TLC. The wallpaper is peeling, the furniture is tired.
Two guests descend on the boarding house which hasn’t seen a lodger in over a year. Meg is excited, as it’s Stanley’s birthday. She starts preparing for the big event, whilst her new guests morph from the charming to the downright sinister. We learn that they know Stanley. They are here to collect him.
Terror, farce, truth, reality, the absurd, chaos and the everyday all shift and merge in Pinter’s coal black comedy. The performances are faultless. Young plays an excellent petulant, dishevelled and grumpy Stanley, but it’s Wanamaker who steals the show as the little girl stuck in an aging body with little hope and nowhere to go. This is a birthday party where you won’t want to overstay your welcome. Just be prepared to leave scratching your head and wondering what it was all about.
The Birthday Party is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 9 January to 14 April 2018.