The Theatreguide.London Review
Harold Pinter Theatre January-April 2018
Harold Pinter's first full-length play was famously a flop when it first appeared sixty years ago, but the world quickly caught up with it and it has taken its place in his substantial and honoured body of work.
It wasn't that we figured out all the things that puzzled the first audiences and critics, but that we realised they were asking the wrong questions.
A mousy little man lives obscurely in a second-rate rooming house. Two ominous men appear and, after terrorising him a bit, take him away with them to some dark fate.
What bothered 1958 is that this is really all Pinter tells us, and trying to figure out who Stanley is and why they are after him was a puzzle with too few clues. (Is he a Mafia accountant who ran off with millions, a former spy trying to retire, or what?)
The answer, of course, is that the play is not about Who is Stanley? but rather Why does his story upset you so much?
Can you honestly say that there isn't some peccadillo in your past that you got away with but that occasionally haunts you with the prospect of punishment? Have you absolutely never suspected that there was a 'They' somewhere who were out to get you?
The point of The Birthday Party is not to tell us an easily dismissible story about Stanley but to stir up the bits of paranoia that lie within all of us – not to tell but to affect.
For this sixtieth-anniversary revival director Ian Rickson and his cast understand that, and every scene and character is played for their quietly unsettling effect, with only the barest lip service paid to psychological naturalism.
While Toby Jones as Stanley merely gives his standard creepy-nonentity performance, it proves just right, keeping Stanley from becoming too sympathetic or pathetic.
Despite the text's sprinkling of Yiddishisms Stephen Mangan never once convinces you that the sinister Goldberg is Jewish. But he is weird enough to generate some uneasiness, and Mangan snatches all the opportunities to inspire nervous laughter in the audience.
In counterbalance, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor plays McCann as a stock Irish booby out of Father Ted, the incongruity of a sitcom character in this context proving appropriately unsettling.
The most complex and fascinating characterisation comes from Zoe Wanamaker as landlady Meg, usually played as so dense and innocent she doesn't have a clue what's going on.
Wanamaker makes her completely dotty, living in a string of delusions and fantasies bound only by her limited attention span, and constantly recasting everyone around her into characters in her current private version of reality.
This almost threatens to warp the play, with her as the most sympathetic character and what's going to happen to her of more interest than Stanley's fate.
But Wanamaker and director Rickson stop short of going too far, leaving her one more unsettling element in a play that exists to unsettle.
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