The Theatreguide.London Review
The Birthday Party
Duchess Theatre Spring 2005
In a seaside boarding house lives Stanley, evidently a failed musician going to seed under the loving eyes of his dotty landlady. Suddenly two sinister men appear, accuse Stanley of some unnamed crime or treason, break him down, and cart him off.
Harold Pinter's first full-length play was famously a flop in 1958, and now it is part of the school curriculum and kids write essays analysing it.
The problem back then was that the play looked like realism, but - in what would become his signature style - Pinter didn't give audiences the full background information they expected, so the characters and their actions didn't seem to make sense.
If it wasn't realism, some guessed, then it must be symbolic - something like the Angels of Death seizing a sinner. But that didn't work either.
What we've all come to realise about Pinter (and Beckett, and others) is that the point is not to try to understand, but to react emotionally.
Just about everyone has felt, at least sometimes, that They are Out There waiting to Get Us, or that there is Something In Our Past we would very much rather not come out.
And reminding us of that uneasiness, forcing a moment of recognition and shared experience, is what the play is about.
Unfortunately, very little of that gut response is generated by Lindsay Posner's oddly unfrightening, unthreatening production, which seems to be playing all the bizarreness just for comedy, and not always succeeding at that. And a hit-or-miss comedy isn't what we come to Pinter for.
On the hit side, Eileen Atkins steals every scene she's in as the landlady, playing all her comic dottiness, whether it is girlish glee at dressing up for a party or inordinate pride over the sub-basic breakfasts she manages to throw together.
But the actress also suggests that some of this obtuseness may be a half-conscious defence mechanism to keep the character from facing her own gut fears.
Certainly Atkins manages in a few brief exchanges to give more of a sense of someone trying not to think about something that scares her than Paul Ritter does as Stanley in a disappointingly unshaped and unfocused performance.
As the chief baddy, the usually reliable Henry Goodman seems to be acting in a vacuum, reciting his lines by rote and not relating to anyone around him. Finbar Lynch generates some mystery as his laconic but obsessive sidekick, but it isn't enough.
The scene in which the two men subject Stanley to a rapid-fire interrogation and string of accusations could work as either scary or hilarious, as a director chose, but here it just lies there generating no more than the occasional chuckle.
And the scenes of Stanley's progressive breakdown are so clumsily staged that even if Paul Ritter had been more successful creating his character, they still wouldn't work.
Berkowitz's Law: When everybody in a play is poor, and poor in the same ways, the fault is the director's. And if one performer manages to rise above that level, as Eileen Atkins does, then all the more praise to her. She is a delight to watch, but the only reason to see this production.
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