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 – The Snowman, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 21st November 2017

The SnowmanNothing to do with Raymond Briggs or choirboys singing Walking in the Air, this Snowman is a lot more lethal. Based on Jo Nesbø’s book of the same name, it features his detective Harry Hole as he investigates a series of murders where the killer always leaves a calling card in the form of a snowman. A real one, built from snow, with two sticky twigs as arms. Unsurprisingly, he tends to rest during the summer months.

Michael FassbenderConfession time – but I sense I might not be alone here – I’ve neither heard of Harry Hole nor of Jo Nesbø, and had no idea that he was like the Norwegian version of Inspector Morse. I only decided to book for this film because I saw the trailer at an earlier visit to the cinema and it looked gripping. I also had no idea that it had been universally panned by the critics, with reviews that include “a mystery that feels as mashed together and perishable as its title” and “a leaden, clotted, exasperating mess”. High praise indeed.

Michael Fassbender and Charlotte GainsbourgI have to say, I think they’re rather harsh comments, because, on the whole, we enjoyed the film. In its favour: first, the excellent cinematography, with those enigmatic, snowy, mountainous wastes of Norway looming gloomily in the distance. I’ve never been to Oslo, but I have had the experience of visiting Tromso and the generally depressing Norwegian urban scenes in the film largely reflected my memory of that miserable city. Second, the suspense: about fifteen minutes into the film, a lady is sitting reading in bed and you suddenly hear a snowball being thrown at her bedroom window. Mrs Chrisparkle jolted with shock so much she almost knocked the Pinot Grigio out of the man’s hand sitting next to her. That’s how suspenseful it is. Third, the opening ten minutes or so plunge you instantly into the story, ending with a very strong visual image that I think I will remember for a long time!

Rebecca FergusonIn its disfavour, and it very nearly ruined it completely for me: in the final reel, as it were, there’s Harry Hole, injured and unable to move, prostrate on the floor, with the killer lumbering up to him ready to deal the final blow that will send him to the land of Old Norse. Well, it’s no spoiler to tell you that Harry survives the ordeal – after all he features in another four books after this one so that’s in the public domain – but the reason the killer fails to silence him forever? Risible. And pathetic. And nonsensical. I’ll say no more.

Chloe SevignyOverall it’s a decent whodunit, but as the film progresses, the identity of the killer becomes more and more apparent (well it did to me, at least.) The killer is fairly obviously the boy in the first scenes, now grown up to be a man. There are three characters who might most likely be that person. One gets murdered halfway through, and another is seen to be somewhere else when the next murder takes place – and, lo and behold, that third person does indeed turn out to be the killer. Ah well, sometimes it’s satisfying to guess right.

J K SimmonsI enjoyed Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole; he’s low key and somewhat dour, but then, he is playing a Norwegian. Reading up on Harry’s characteristics in the books and on a synopsis of the novel, I’d say it was a pretty good interpretation of the role; the chain-smoking and alcoholism are certainly clear. Having said that, there are huge, interesting-sounding aspects of the original book that are nowhere near touched on in the screenplay – an opportunity missed, methinks. Rebecca Ferguson is convincing as Katrine, the detective who’s been brought in alongside Hole to keep him in check; Charlotte Gainsbourg is authoritative and serious as Harry’s ex, Rakel; and there are a few surprising cameos in the supporting cast, including Toby Jones as a police investigator and Anne Reid, would you believe, as a nosey neighbour. Plus there’s a very rough looking Val Kilmer as a now dead detective, frequently returning to interrupt the flow of the investigation. He also just so happens to be Katrine’s dad. Curious.

Val KilmerHow come no one ever saw the killer building the snowmen outside his victims’ houses? I think it must be asked. And how on earth did he manage to shape a snowman on the roof of a car? The cops need to focus their investigation on a man with his own stepladder and mittens. Despite all its shortcomings, I still found it entertaining enough to stay awake (that, gentle reader, is something one should never take for granted) and I generally enjoyed it in the way, I think, that the creative team wanted me to – in other words, taking it seriously and not taking the mick. I do sense though that this is a film that is going to sink without trace in the annals of movie history.

P. S. If you’ve always wanted to hear the Norwegian version of Cliff Richard’s Congratulations, your prayers are answered.