Do you remember doing your A-levels, gentle reader? If you had the…pleasure…of that experience, you won’t have forgotten it. Staying up half the night cramming in essays on everything left right and centre – well for me it was English, French and German, but that’s not the point. We knew that one of the A level papers in English would have a question on Harold Pinter. Our teacher took us through The Caretaker, and I voluntarily read The Homecoming – but didn’t understand it of course. We also read, in class, The Birthday Party, and our teacher suggested we should write an essay on it for homework, but he wasn’t going to insist on it. We already had enough on our plate.
But I was entranced by The Birthday Party and started an essay on it at 7pm which I finished at 1am. I had no idea where I was going with it but I just felt the need to express my reaction to it. I handed it in, hoping that the labour of love would get me some brownie points. But I got more than that. The teacher marked me a straight alpha for it, read it out to all the other classes, and told everyone “here is a man who really loves his subject.” I’ll never forget that. And I got a Grade B in English A level!
This was Pinter’s first full-length play, originally staged in 1958 when it ran for a dynamic eight performances, no doubt curtailed because of the savaging it received from the critics. Only Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times (always the most reliable observer of drama of his age) recognised Pinter’s talent and saw in the play what others failed to see. Since then it’s had precious few revivals in the UK and I’ve been waiting for a chance to see it for over forty years. Hurrah that Ian Rickson’s production has arrived at the Comedy (I mean Harold Pinter – appropriately) Theatre, and I could not wait to book.
How the memories came flooding back. On the written page it’s very hard to get a feel for this play. Just how menacing is it? (Very.) Just how funny is it? (Surprisingly, quite a lot.) What does it mean? (Now you’re asking….) Here’s the bare bones: Stanley (morose, unkempt, petulant, seedy) has been staying at Meg and Petey’s seaside boarding house for a year now. Petey is a deck chair attendant so is out all day and in all weathers (although who sits on a deckchair in the rain?) which leaves Meg the run of the house, doing the cleaning and the cooking and generally looking after Stanley. He is their only guest. So is he really a bona fide boarding house guest, or just a figment of their imagination, a son figure to complete an otherwise empty family set-up?
Shattering the status quo, two mysterious men, Goldberg and McCann, arrive, looking for a place to stay. Meg is unsure at first, but they’re gentlemanly and flattering and win her over with ease. But what of their relationship with Stanley? It seems like he knows who they are. It seems like they know who he is. And what appears to be at first polite, distant dealings with him turn into haranguing, menacing, threatening interrogations that he cannot cope with. It’s also, apparently, Stanley’s birthday (although he denies it) and a party is scheduled for 9pm that night. What could possibly go wrong?
You could analyse this play for a year and a day and still not come up with anything like a this is what this play is about statement. But that’s the point. Pinter delights in contradiction and obfuscation. Characters say one thing and do another. They assume several identities. Symbols like Stanley’s missing piano or his toy drum take on a force of their own and challenge you to apply reason to them. But if a clear meaning did emerge, Pinter would have had to go back to the drawing board and start again. The audience is a vital part of the production as they fill in some of the gaps in an attempt to make some sense of what’s going on. But there will always be gaps when watching this play, and my suggestion is simply to revel in them.
The curtain rises to the Quay Brothers’ meticulously realised set; grimy wallpaper peeling from the walls, dark brown wooden panelling that needs updating, dumpy comfortless furniture that reflects the harsh reality of the household. Their costume design is also perfect for the time, location and characters: Stanley’s soiled pyjama top; Meg’s dowdy pinny and dress; Goldberg and McCann’s formal business suits; Lulu and Meg’s glamorous party outfits. For a play and production that relies on high impact lighting cues, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design works perfectly, from the effect when Stanley strikes a match, the sunlight that comes in from the door that illuminates Stanley’s profile to the shock of the blackout and its subsequent revelations. There’s so much in the background to admire in this production.
Then you have six tremendous performances that really get to the heart of the text, two of which come under the “perfect casting” heading. Toby Jones is chillingly good as Stanley, a fantastic portrayal of this lethargic lump of barely concealed neuroses, pathetically pretending to a greater existence in his past whilst all too closely fearing for his own mortality. No one does “wretched” quite like Mr Jones and he was absolutely born to play this role. And Zoe Wanamaker gives a masterclass performance as the under-achieving, suggestible Meg, waxing lyrical about those lovely flakes and affecting shock but actually aroused when Stanley calls her succulent. Like Shirley Valentine, Meg has had such a little life, and Ms Wanamaker makes you feel her character long ago stopped trying to break out of it. Her “belle of the ball” moments are genuinely moving, as is Petey’s attempt to protect her from bad news at the end of the play – some great characterisation from Peter Wight there in what you might otherwise think is just a filler character. No line is wasted in a Pinter play.
Stephen Mangan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor are excellent as Goldberg and McCann but a complete contrast from how I would have imagined them. In my mind’s eye Goldberg is almost a stereotype east-end Jew, probably lifted from a not very PC sitcom from the 1970s – very Sydney Tafler-esque (whom I note played Goldberg in the 1968 film which I didn’t even know existed). I’ve always thought of McCann as a thuggish Irish navvy-type; the kind who’d wallop you with a spade and then ask questions afterwards. These imaginary characterisations in my head are so different from the realistic, true to life performances on offer in this production. Mr Mangan gives every one of Goldberg’s lines a weight and resonance that I hadn’t known was there before. This makes the character more sinister and threatening – even before he starts becoming sinister and threatening. You can see in Mr Mangan’s eyes how Goldberg is plotting his every move in a chess game where Stanley can never occupy a safe square.
Mr Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann is more cerebral than thuggish, in a linguistic fencing match where he forces Stanley into a position where Goldberg can go in for the kill. His newspaper-tearing torture, which I had always felt evoked the sound of bones breaking, is actually more like an attack on the mind than the body and is carried out with such intimidating concentration that it made me feel queasy. The two actors work together so well on their combined verbal attacks on Stanley, with beautifully orchestrated and executed delivery so that the poor man is powerless to protect himself. Completing the sextet is a spirited and likeable portrayal of Lulu by Pearl Mackie, the free-thinking outsider who gets caught in Stanley and Goldberg’s cat and mouse game and pays the price.
This is a simply brilliant production that really brings Pinter’s text to life and surprises you with its humour, its anarchy and its sheer menace. You don’t need to be a Drama or English student to enjoy this one. Seriously impressive and highly recommended.
Production photos by Johan Persson