Power Play: The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Stanley (Toby Jones) and Meg (Zoë Wanamaker) in Ian Rickson’s revival of The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

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.

Pinter’s Pest Control: Old Times at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Lia WIllams (as Kate), Rufus Sewell & Kristin Scott Thomas (as Anna)
Lia WIllams (as Kate), Rufus Sewell & Kristin Scott Thomas (as Anna)

Harold Pinter once stated in an interview that his plays all deal with “the weasel under the liquor cabinet”, an intriguing metaphor that perhaps points towards his propensity for depicting people who have a great deal going on beneath the surface — though with Pinter, everything is conjecture. He informs us that by looking closer at any domestic scene, all manner of dirty secrets come crawling into the light.

Old Times, first performed in 1971, is a prime example of Pinter’s ability to create characters who are riveting, engaging an audience’s full attention despite not a great deal happening on stage. In this three-hander examining the relationship between a married couple and a mutual female “friend”, Pinter expertly forges an edge-of-your-seat narrative even though very little actually takes place. Deeley and Kate are visited for the weekend by Anna, who was the wife’s best friend when she was younger and – it is implied – has slept with the husband. And… that’s about it, plot-wise.

It’s testament not only to the brilliance of the script but also the performances that, for me at least, the play never tips over into tedium. Pinter certainly doesn’t make it easy for his actors, necessitating lengthy, loaded pauses, a large amount of pacing and frequent monologues. To really up the ante in the current production, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams have masochistically decided to take it in turns to play the parts of Kate and Anna. It’s a notion that terrifies the actor in me – what if you found yourself saying the wrong character’s lines? – but it does suggest some highly intriguing interpretations of a self-consciously obtuse script.

About a week before the performance I attended, an email was sent out announcing who would be playing which role: in this case, Scott Thomas was Kate while Williams portrayed Anna. It transpired that this was probably the most comfortable way round for a cast who fully inhabited the three roles on offer, and made it difficult to imagine the actors swapping. Scott Thomas appears perfectly at home in the icy, languorous skin of wife Kate, firing off crisp statements at odds with her feline body language. I found Williams the weakest of the three performers, possibly as a result of Anna’s characterisation as an eager-to-please but rather blank canvas, her behaviour often an attempt to match the actions of the couple whose life she “invades”. Unlike her fellow actors, Williams never gives us much of a glimpse beneath Anna’s surface, and I would argue that Pinter’s characters require a greater depth and sense of their turbulent internal life than she presents us with. In a different production, Williams’ subtle, assured performance would have been a highlight, and she only really suffered by comparison with the other two people on stage.

Rufus Sewell as Deely
Rufus Sewell as Deely

It was left to Rufus Sewell to steal the show (having previously impressed in TV films Cold Comfort Farm and the BBC’s acclaimed ShakespeaRe-Told version of The Taming of the Shrew in a standout performance as Petruchio opposite Shirley Henderson’s Katherine). Maybe because he was only expected to play the one part, Sewell was able to fully develop Deeley into a believable figure of brittle, jocular charm. A ball of nervous energy, he provided a neat counterpoint to Scott Thomas and Williams’ slower, more static performances, and gave a convincing depiction of a man struggling to maintain authority and masculine power.

All three were aided by clever staging: the play’s action is only spread over two rooms, but both were appropriately laid out in a triangular formation, with two sofas or beds and an armchair in the middle. In typically Pinteresque fashion, the script centres around a number of objects of power, with the furniture serving as the site for seemingly-civil face-offs. The characters lean over one another, stretch out across each other, jostling for position and chillingly declaring: “I remember you dead.” In spite of Deeley’s attempts at jokey humour and Anna trying to reawaken a sense of youthful frivolity in Kate, the play has a cold, hard heart that refuses to be warmed – and it’s all the more scintillating for that.

It all leaves us with a riot of questions: a great showcase for Pinter’s unrivalled capacity for provoking thought and discussion. It’s not the most celebrated of the playwright’s output, and not performed as frequently as his best-known work – with good reason. We are geared up to expect a shocking revelation that never really comes, and as usual Pinter’s men (or in this case, man) are more robust characters than his women: far more three-dimensional. However, there’s a sinister edge to the text, and the trio themselves, that makes it a solid study of “the weasel under the liquor cabinet”. In fact, in this house of secrets and guilty pasts, it’s not just the liquor cabinet that’s showing a need for pest control.

Old Times is performing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until April 2013.