It’s a delicious irony that a play so widely panned it closed after eight performances is now, sixty years later, enjoying one of the starriest revivals in the West End. Harold Pinter is hailed by many as the greatest playwright of the 20th century, but that’s not to say that The Birthday Party is an accessible text. What are Doctor Who addicts here to see ex-companion Pearl Mackie and Episodes fans eager for a glimpse of Stephen Mangan to make of the play’s unbridled weirdness?
Stanley (Toby Jones) is holed up in the grottiest of seaside B&Bs, here recreated with loving detail right down to the peeling wallpaper and dust-caked furniture. His hostess Meg (Zoë Wanamaker) treats the ageing man like a spoilt toddler, which he responds to with a mixture of bad temper and entitlement. Then the mysterious Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and his associate McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) turn up to terrorise Stanley and things get really weird.
Jones and Wanamaker are by far the best thing about this production. Lord knows Jones could have chewed the scenery if he wanted to as the retired pianist gradually losing his mind. Instead his decline is like a branch queasily bending until it snaps. His bristling temper in the first act gives way to his near silent presence in the second. He visibly seems to shrink as Goldberg breaks down his defences. Wanamaker meanwhile is almost unrecognisable as dotty landlady Meg. She embraces the way her character is frozen in girlhood without overdoing her naivety and limited intelligence.
Mangan I found less convincing, although some people I spoke to found his a refreshing take on Goldberg. Perhaps it’s the oddball charm he brings to his Episodes character and his brief stint as Douglas Adams’s holistic detective Dirk Gently, but I couldn’t take him seriously as the evil presence which invades the crumbling B&B. When Goldberg starts to indulge in some near nonsensical speeches you can see why Mangan was cast, but I was still never wholly won over.
Although the play is undoubtedly a classic, even Pinter had a knack of leaving female characters underdeveloped. Despite her best efforts Pearl Mackie couldn’t make the somewhat incidental Lola much more than a cipher. Lola’s motivations don’t make the greatest amount of sense – whether this was Pinter’s intention remains to be seen – but nevertheless Mackie brings the charm of her Doctor Who character to the minor role with a side-serving of biting acidity.
The famous Pinter pause is nowhere to be seen as director Ian Rickson opts for a more pacey approach. It works: Mangan and Vaughan-Lawlor’s snappy back-and-forths in particular are excellent. This take also underlines Pinter’s bizarre humour. In one of my favourite exchanges Lola tells Goldberg “you’re the dead image of the first man I loved”. “It goes without saying,” Goldberg smirks.
As in much Pinter, power operates in subtle ways. Even the action of taking a seat is to cede power in the playwright’s predatory and paranoid world. Mangan’s height and tendency to gesticulate compared with Jones’ diminutive stature and caved posture really drilled this point home. Goldberg owns the stage while Jones seems to occupy less and less of it.
Though audience members drawn in by the ludicrously starry cast are still liable to bewilderment, Rickson’s production is probably as accessible as Pinter gets. The questions that riled reviewers back in 1958 – Who is Stanley? What is the sinister association Goldberg works for? – aren’t all that relevant when the performances are such a treat and the dialogue milked for all of Pinter’s dark, absurdist humour. Some of the staging decisions could have been clearer (it’s not entirely obvious what’s happened at the dramatic climax of the titular birthday party), but all in all Rickson’s revival is a joy to watch. Who’s to say there aren’t Doctor Who fans now hungrily devouring Pinter’s collected works?
The Birthday Party continues at the Harold Pinter Theatre until April 14 2018.