Review – The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre, 17th February 2018

The Birthday PartyDo 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.

Birthday PartyBut 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!

TBP Zoe WanamakerThis 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.

TBP Torturing StanleyHow 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?

TBP Zoe Wanamaker and Toby JonesShattering 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?

TBP Tom Vaughan-LawlorYou 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.

TBP Toby JonesThe 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.

TBP Stephen ManganThen 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.

TBP Peter WightStephen 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.

TBP Pearl MackieMr 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.

TBP Boarding house from hellThis 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

Review – Oslo, Harold Pinter Theatre, 27th December 2017

OsloHere’s another production that’s now closed, so there’s nothing I can say to influence your buying or not buying a ticket. Having booked for the obviously crowd-pleasing Everybody’s Talking About Jamie for the Wednesday matinee, I faced a different challenge for the evening. “What are we going to see?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle. “A play called Oslo,” I replied. “And what’s it about?” “It’s about a treaty between Israel and the PLO”. Silence. “How long is it?” “Err…just under…three hours.” Another silence. “It’s a National Theatre production”, I added hopefully. A third silence. “It’s had good reviews” I added. A fourth silence, finally broken by the plaintive question, “are you sure about this?”

Oslo - complex phone callsThe fact is, I wasn’t sure at all. The prospect of three hours of negotiations between representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Israeli government hosted by Norwegian diplomats in a remote house outside Oslo bears all the signs of early grounds for divorce. Let’s face it, there aren’t going to be many laughs are there?

Oslo - a meeting of mindsBut that’s where you’re wrong, gentle reader, as indeed both of us were. There are loads of laughs. You wouldn’t describe it as a comedy, mind you; it’s a genuinely serious docudrama that takes us through the painstaking procedure of getting the two sides together under one roof to start talking about… well about anything really. That was the initial position that the diplomats took; if they could get individuals who take opposing views on matters of politics and nationalism just to talk about their families, or their fondness for waffles or a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label, that’s got to be a start.

Oslo - Peter Polycarpou in an awkward moment of negotiationsAnd they were right. From such little acorns, as the saying goes… Terje Rød-Larsen, Director of the social research Fafo Institute, and Mona Juul, official at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, go out on a limb and achieve the impossible. The audience follows, spellbound, as we see well-known political figures from both camps inexorably become involved with the talking; the arguments, the postulating, the climbdowns, the idiosyncrasies, the teasing, the jokes… Yes, jokes. Even with such high stakes, it’s fascinating to see how humour can diffuse an awkward situation, and reposition the brain into a more accepting and generous place. Get it wrong, however, and it can have the reverse effect; early in the negotiations Israeli historian and journalist Ron Pundak makes a joke at the expense of Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie is infuriated. Fortunately for the peace process, Qurie is quite easily distracted by a raspberry waffle.

Oslo - Holst's not going to like itWriter J T Rogers stipulates in his text that the set design should be as uncluttered as possible and should work on our imaginations, so that the gaps between the scenes should be seamless. Designer Michael Yeargen took him at his word and created a very simple set, dominated by a grand pair of doors which can conceal – or reveal – negotiations on the other side. Endless wall panelling continued stage right to suggest the empty expanse of the outside world where various important figures might come and go, but we the audience never look in that direction, only focussing on the centre stage where all the important events occur. Characters also emerged from the auditorium, giving us a slightly unsettling impression of being at the heart of the negotiations. J T Rogers has his two Norwegian diplomats occasionally addressing the audience directly, emphasising that sense of us all being in it together.

Oslo - Mona and Terje together whilst Qurie looks onBecause this play very much relies on the power of the spoken word, it’s vital to have a strong, confident and eloquent cast – and this production had that completely nailed. Central to the action were Lydia Leonard as Mona and Toby Stephens as Larsen and they created a superb double act together. Mr Stephens adopted a convincing Scandinavian accent that didn’t sound too ridiculous and gave a brilliant portrayal of a man who’s comfortable with his own vanity but flexible enough to put things right when they go wrong, such as when the well-meaning housekeeper has prepared roast pork for dinner. Ms Leonard had a wonderful knowing look and a gently calculating air that suggested that she fully knew that deep down she was in charge. Two immaculate performances.

Oslo - Shimon PeresThere was also a very impressive performance by Howard Ward as Johan Jorgen Holst, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, a man who’s not unfamiliar with the best cuts of meat served with the finest of wines, delightfully patronising and complacent until he discovers something he doesn’t like. That’s when he tends to release an uncontrollable string of four-letter words – actually the same four-letter word spoken several times, each time more frenzied than the last. Mr Ward managed to be both intimidatingly dramatic and absolutely hilarious at the same time.

Oslo - Savir has had a fewThe roles of the various negotiators were all immaculately performed and given full characterisation by a very talented team but there were two really stand-out performances. Philip Arditti, as Uri Savir, the Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who is brought in to take the negotiations to a higher level, was both eerily scary and uproariously funny with his snappy delivery of Rogers’ elegant text. I’m still not quite sure how he, and/or the character, got away with that simple but effective impersonation of Arafat. Even more stunning was Peter Polycarpou’s performance as Ahmed Qurie; sinister, serious, intimidating, aggressive, yet a family man who lets down his guard and lets some light in where other angels fear to tread. And loves a waffle.

Oslo - Qurie and SavirEven though the play is set on a fixed date in the past – 1993 – the issues it raises are timeless and whilst there is tension in the Middle East, Oslo will always be relevant. Shortly before we saw the production, Donald Trump’s administration had declared it would regard Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there. Without taking any sides in the matter, watching the play my toes curled at the insensitivity of this decision, as you witness how significant and how symbolic such actions can be. If ever you needed confirmation on how diplomacy needs a light touch, this play brings it into sharp focus.

Oslo - Hassan AsfourIf Oslo hadn’t really worked as a play, because it was too wordy, or too serious, or too undramatic, I’d have classified it as a brave failure, which is something I usually prize way higher than a lazy success anyway. But there’s absolutely no element of failure to it all. It’s ground-breaking in the way it takes what sounds like dull as ditchwater source material and creates such an exciting, suspenseful, revealing and funny play. Huge congratulations all round. You can’t go and see it in London at the moment, but I can’t imagine it will be long before this play finds another life somewhere else. Keep your eyes peeled!

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Review – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter Theatre, 15th April 2017

Who's Afraid of Virginia WoolfMrs Chrisparkle was more like my carer than my wife as I slowly shuffled into the Comedy – I mean Harold Pinter – Theatre to see Saturday’s matinee of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I’d been feeling lousy with a virus since midweek, but on Good Friday I finally flopped and it was only the prospect of seeing Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill get the guests – and the fact that I didn’t want to waste £180 worth of theatre tickets – that made me drag myself out of my sick bed and limp to Leicester Square.

This will always be the Comedy Theatre to me“So, what’s the play all about”, Mrs C asked me in my occasional lucid moments on the train into town. “Oh… two older people have two younger people round for drinks”. Well, that’s not wrong, is it? “And that’s what makes it one of the 20th century’s best plays, is it?” “Well, it’s symbolic as well.” And after that, I think I nodded off. Tracts, theses, chapters, essays and more have been written as to what it’s all about, so I’m hardly likely (or indeed intelligent enough) to encapsulate it in a quick paragraph or two, particularly with my manflu. University types George and Martha (the original President and First Lady, as my English teacher Bruce Ritchie liked to point out) verbally tear each other limb from limb through endless bottles of late-night liquor. He both plays up to and despises his own personal failures, which she endlessly mocks too; he also humiliates her for her drunkenness and tendency to keep her dress over her head. There’s no point both exercising and exorcising these themes unless they have an audience; so, the arrival of new boy Nick and his ineffectual wife Honey is the perfect opportunity for them to unleash their catalogue of fun and games. Not to mention their son, of course… which Martha unfortunately does… which hurtles the relationship further towards its own endgame.

Imelda StauntonAs well as being an examination of a breakdown of a marriage, it’s an examination of the breakdown of American Society, particularly its culture – no, it is, honestly. George quotes from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West: “and the West, encumbered by crippling alliances, and burdened with a morality too rigid to accommodate itself to the swing of events, must…eventually…fall.” Cold war? USA v. USSR? Or George v. Martha? George describes the university campus variously as Illyria, Penguin Island (the dystopian satiric version of Anatole France I presume, and not the tourist attraction off the coast of Perth), Gomorrah, New Carthage, (after all, George does say he was born around the time of the Punic Wars) and Parnassus (home of the Muses – Nick doesn’t get it). The very title is a pun on Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, which they sang at the dreadful sounding party the evening before, a really self-conscious pompous way of combining pop culture with something more literary. They all think the song’s a scream. I think it makes them look like smartasses.

Conleth HillIt’s structured as a three-act play, each with its own title: “Fun and Games”, “Walpurgisnacht” and “The Exorcism”. Fun and Games – well, that doesn’t need explaining, as they ritualistically humiliate anyone and everyone. Walpurgisnacht is the eve of the feast day of St Walpurga, a celebration of sorcery and witches with bonfires and dancing; and we all know how that kind of thing can get out of hand. The Exorcism deals with the aftermath of the “death” of their son. With no sub plot, all set in the same place at the same time, it observes the classical unities (which is nice) – and even the death of the son isn’t seen; George reports that Crazy Billy from Western Union delivered a telegram. Coming in at three hours it’s a long play, but even so, I note that this production cuts the significant scene where Honey confesses to George that she’s scared of having children and doesn’t want any. I feel that does a disservice to the character of Honey, making her more vapidly inconsequential and less of an individual with their own concerns and problems. But, then, let’s face it, Honey isn’t really who’s on display here.

Luke TreadawayAnd that’s why everyone is in the auditorium: Imelda Staunton as Martha, and Conleth Hill as George. I can’t think of anyone more appropriate for the role of Martha as Ms Staunton, and from the moment she appears, cursing her head off, you know you’re in for a treat. Aggressive Martha, intimate Martha, cutesypie Martha, dismissive Martha, mocking Martha, and even that rare beast appreciative Martha, she’s in total control of the character, even if her character isn’t in control of anything much. It’s a supreme performance, just as you knew it would be. Conleth Hill is new to me – although looking at his biography I’ve no idea how that can be – and he’s absolutely superb at playing George’s irritating verbal games. As Nick says, he sets each question up as a trap so that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, and there’s no quarter given as he pounces on any perceived weakness. I’ve no idea if this was intentional but both Mrs C and I thought there was an element of Donald Trump about the throwaway delivery of some of his lines that made them even more generally unpleasant. And you sense the threat behind anything he says or does is really tangible – you wouldn’t cross this man.

Imogen PootsLuke Treadaway is great as the much-toyed-with Nick, aggressively by George, sexually by Martha; a perfect physical representation of that All-American Hero but with too many insecurities and flaws to carry it off. There’s not a lot that the character can do apart from attempt to hold his own in argument or conflict with his hosts, both together and individually, and Mr Treadaway achieves this extremely well. Imogen Poots is delightful as the vacuous Honey, performing her interpretative dance to the second movement of Beethoven 7, slowly realising that George’s round of Get The Guests is aimed at her, and regularly teetering off to be sick in the john.

Imelda Staunton and Conleth HillBut it’s those endless rounds of verbal fencing between George and Martha that remain with you after this production, and the fact that they perform them with such split-second accuracy of timing and expression is an amazing achievement. James Macdonald’s wonderful production runs at the Comedy – I mean Harold Pinter – until May 27th.

Dancing with Virginia WoolfP. S. I note that the language has been beefed up a bit. When George throws open the door to reveal the arrival of Nick and Honey, in the original version Martha was yelling “Screw You” at him. In this production that’s been replaced by a simple “F**k!” The F-word appears in a few other scenes too. It was very effective – if you’re waiting to come in to a party and the door opens to reveal your hostess screaming “F**k!” at the top of her voice, there’s no way you can pretend that you didn’t know you were in for a rough time.

Production photos by Johan Persson