Sheila Hancock returns to the London stage later this year to lead the cast of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, which is staged at the Lyric Hammersmith in May to mark the 50th anniversary of the show’s premiere at the West London venue. Hancock is joined in the cast by Lloyd Hutchinson, Justin Salinger, Alan Williams and Nicholas Woodeson. The production, which runs from 8-24 May, is directed by David Farr.
Hancock, who won a Laurence Olivier Award in 2007 for her portrayal of Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret, worked with Pinter in 1956 when they were both starting their careers. In 1959 she appeared in a Pinter sketch in a revue at the Lyric Hammersmith opposite Beryl Reid. She recreated the performance opposite Dawn French in 1997.
While Pinter’s career saw him leave acting behind, barring rare appearances, to concentrate on his writing, Hancock has become once of Britain’s most recognisable actresses with performances in a host of television sitcoms including The Bed-Sit Girl, The Rag Trade and Now Take My Wife. More recent television outings have included Bedtime and Bleak House.
Though it was television that elevated Hancock’s celebrity, the stage is where she learned her trade. Among her London appearances have been Rattle Of A Simple Man, The Anniversary, Under The Blue Sky, In Extremis and Annie, in which she originated the role of Miss Hannigan.
Speaking about her return to the Lyric Hammersmith, Hancock said: “I remember seeing The Birthday Party at the Lyric in 1958 – one of the few people who did – and being astounded that my fellow actor was a brilliant writer. It is a great joy for me to be reunited with Harold and to be returning to the Lyric Hammersmith.”
Pinter’s play premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith on 19 May 1958 and was immediately panned by every critic bar Harold Hobson, closing after eight performances. It is possibly the greatest testament to how wrong critics can be as 50 years later it is regarded among the very best pieces of post-war theatre and Pinter went on to be honoured with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.
The Lyric Hammersmith’s Artistic Director David Farr commented on the revival: “When I suggested to Harold Pinter the idea of celebrating the anniversary, I was struck by his enthusiasm for the idea, and by his vivid memories of the fate of the original production. The Lyric has a proud history of theatrical risk-taking and Pinter’s The Birthday Party stands as a significant part of that tradition. I am thrilled that Sheila Hancock is leading such a wonderful cast of actors to join Harold and me on this journey. Sheila is a Lyric legend and we are thrilled to have her back.”
The Birthday Party was last staged in London in 2005, when The Birmingham Rep production starring Henry Goodman and Eileen Atkins transferred to the Duchess.
The Birthday Party is preceded in the Lyric Hammersmith’s main house season by Metamorphosis and Contains Violence.