When Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party was first staged at the Lyric Hammersmith it was savaged by nearly all of the major critics, a mauling which could have signalled the end of Pinter’s playwriting career before it had really started.
Yet critic Harold Hobson stuck his neck out and praised a play that broke away from the rules to which everyone expected it to adhere.
Pinter is now a Nobel Prize winner and considered one of the world’s greatest living playwrights, and The Birthday Party has become one of his best-known works. It is revived for a short run at the Lyric Hammersmith to mark the 50th anniversary of that original, horrendously received production.
It is easy to understand what might have rubbed critics up the wrong way when The Birthday Party was first staged; there is so much unexplained and inexplicable about what happens on stage.
Stanley boards with Meg and Petey. Apparently he used to be a pianist of sorts, now he just lives as part of the status quo in this dingy seaside boarding house that only has one boarder. Into this world come Goldberg and McCann, two suited gentlemen who seem to know Stanley and set about bullying him into submission. Why are they doing it? Who knows? Where are they from? We don’t know that either.
But we don’t really need to, because the play isn’t concerned with the history of these characters, but the power struggles played out at that time.
Nicholas Woodeson’s Goldberg is a small, exuberant, courteous man, in the way someone supremely confident about their ability to control lives can be exuberant and courteous. Lloyd Hutchinson, as his sidekick McCann, is a more physical presence, but lacks Goldberg’s coolness, becoming threatening in a more obvious, destructive fashion.
As the target of their threatening behaviour, Justin Salinger, playing Stanley, has a tricky job in Acts II and III, sitting at the centre of the plot, but actually saying very little, held in a silent world of panic and fear. Yet his eyes, teetering between terror and dead acceptance, give a glimpse of Stanley’s supremely troubled mind. Before the arrival of his two associates, however, he exudes the kind of threatening animosity of which they would be proud.
Sheila Hancock is among the few people to have seen the original production of The Birthday Party. As landlady Meg, she delivers the kind of performance that almost rouses you out of your seat to give her a big hug and tell her everything is alright. She is the matriarch, in rollers and a housecoat, who just wants to please, longs to be motherly and aches to be loved, yet struggles to find this acceptance anywhere.
Director David Farr’s production, as one would expect from a Pinter piece, has the necessary ominous pauses where tension builds exponentially in the absence of speech. Added to this a masterful scene played in the dark; scuffles and speech are heard, yet shadows are the only indication of physical presence. Never has there been a more suitable personification of blind terror.
The Birthday Party of the title is unlike any you are likely to experience. All families have their upsets, but this takes strained relationships to another level entirely.