(reviewed at the Norwich Playhouse on 23 February)
People play games, with others as well as with themselves. Playwrights play word games with both their charcters and with us, the audience. The Birthday Party was Pinter’s first full-length play to be staged, in 1959 to bemused, not to say highly critical, audiences.
Now we accept it, if not always easily, on its merits. Michael Cabot’s new touring production fo London Classic Theatre is high on intelligence and keeps up the pace, from those opening and closing inanities exchanged by long-term husband and wife Petey and Meg to the veiled self-revelations of their long-term lodger Stanley and those of the two strangers Goldberg and McCann who muscle into the boarding-house.
Personal revelations come, on the surface, thick and fast but, as always with Pinter, none are to be taken at face value. Jonathan Ashley’s Goldberg, his first name as slithery as his relations with Meg and neighbour Lulu, spins fantasies as complex as those of Stanley himself, the lay-a-bed recluse in flight from who knows what.
Designer Bek Palmer sets the action in a realisticly furnished set on a raised platform surrounded by black tabs. We’re in many different worlds at once – some of which overlap while others collide. Gareth Bennett-Ryan takes full advantage of Stanley diatribes as the pampered surrogate son and lover is changed from a sort of spiky relaxation into the collapsed creature of Goldberg and McCann’s manipulations.
The subtlest performance comes from Cheryl Kennedy as Meg, that archetypical frustrated wife and non-mother. Perhaps she was indeed once the belle of the ball in the tulle swatches of her pre-war party dress and has slunk into slovenly housekeeping purely as a reaction. Ashley makes a dominant (as well as domineering) villain with Declan Rodgers radiating menace as McCann.
The Birthday Party plays at the Norwich Playhouse on 24 February. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds 25-27 February, the Key Theatre, Peterborough 1-2 March, the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford 8-9 March, the Harlow Playhouse 25-27 April, the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich 10-14 May and the Alan Arena, St Albans on 9 June as part of the national tour until 18 June.