Pinter's Party Animals

By Ian Shuttleworth

Harold Pinter, so the story goes, once reported that there had been so many successful productions of his plays at the Comedy Theatre that its management were considering renaming it after him, to which Tom Stoppard supposedly replied that it would be simpler if he changed his name to Harold Comedy. But in 2011, three years after the playwright’s death, it did indeed become the Harold Pinter Theatre, and now it hosts a diamond jubilee revival of his second and breakthrough play, The Birthday Party.

Former pianist Stanley lives in a seaside boarding house, until a sinister duo named Nat Goldberg and Dermot McCann arrive to return him to a shadowy ‘organisation’ from which he had resigned. That’s a fairly simple plot summary, except that every significant detail of it is open to question, including all three men’s names.

This was the play that established Pinter’s twin signatures: constant uncertainty and unspecified menace. We know Goldberg and McCann are on Stanley’s case, but have no reliable idea what that case is. All three offer mixed-up recollections of their pasts. And there’s always a feeling that something is lurking out of vision – something even darker than the peeling wallpaper on the Quay Brothers’ set. Toby Jones makes Stanley more hostile than usual: he often seems quite a desperate figure, but in this production it’s all too easy to believe he’s cut from the same cloth as the
two newcomers. His duels with Goldberg seem to be matches of equals, and that’s saying something since Stephen Mangan’s Goldberg is the best I’ve seen since a 1980s BBC TV version, when he was played by, er, Harold Pinter. He doesn’t need to make the affable but hollow patter sound as if it has a menacing undertow; it just naturally emerges.

At times, too, Mangan manages to listen in an even more unsettling way than he speaks. As landlady Meg, Zoë Wanamaker suppresses virtually everything that makes her stand out; this is a compliment, as Meg is all vapid banality with just an occasional harmonic
of loneliness. Tom Vaughan- Lawlor’s McCann is also unusual in being more insecure – in fact, more like your usual Stanley – and Pearl Mackie shakes off her recent  Doctor Who stint as vampish but abused neighbour, Lulu. As Meg’s nondescript husband Petey, Peter Wight gets what Pinter identified as the most significant line of the play: ‘Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!’ For once, you feel not just the shadows over present and future, but the sun  of the past. A mildewed, disquieting beaut.

Until 14 April at the Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1, 0844-871 7627, www.thebirthdayparty.london 

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