THEATRE / Putting in a disappearance: Paul Taylor reviews Sam Mendes's production of The Birthday Party at the Lyttelton

The last time I saw Dora Bryan on stage, she was doing the splits in 70, Girls, 70, a musical about feisty oldsters in which the character made a 'posthumous' appearance at the end, crooning along while swinging on a sickle moon. The legs whose spunky agelessness was such a feature of that show now turn up warped and swathed in wrinkly woollen stockings in Sam Mendes's compelling revival of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, a play which also, though in a very different way, requires her to grow old disgracefully.

As the maternal, incestuous Meg, she offers a splendidly funny portrait of a seaside landlady who should have her 'Vacancies' sign hanging over her forehead. So flat and angular that she looks like what you get if you dressed an ironing board in pinny and plaid slippers, Bryan's Meg conducts herself, when striving to endear, with a grotesque geriatric girlishness. To respond to her overtures would feel simultaneously like cradle-snatching and necrophilia.

She delivers the dialogue with a brilliant oblivious quality which alerts you to every particle of her comic fatuity. I've never heard the line 'Stanley's usually fast asleep when I wake him,' sound quite so definitively 'Irish'. Nor in Meg's woosy fantasies of having had a perfect childhood - 'I was cared for, and I had little brothers and sisters in other rooms, all different colours' - have I heard it seem more likely that it was the siblings not the rooms who were multi-coloured.

Meg is less than useless in protecting Stanley from being broken down and carted off by Goldberg and McCann. There are signs, though, in this production, that Mendes is anxious to move away from too powerful a sense that Stanley's fate has ritualistic inevitability. The director guards against this by giving us tantalising suggestions that resistance just might have paid off. In assigning the part of Stanley to Anton Lesser, an actor of electric energy and intelligence, he must, for example, have realised that here was a victim who, to start with at least, would have some fight in him. And indeed, there's a nervy aggressive edge to the way Lesser's frousty Stanley behaves, a barely suppressed fury that keeps getting sidetracked on to Meg.

Likewise, Trevor Peacock's Petey comes across as a man with more acumen and presence than the gropingly intuitive, decent type you often get. This Petey's quiet determination nearly drives the heavies to nervous breakdowns; there's almost hysterical relief when he finally leaves the house. It also makes the later moment when Goldberg and McCann respond to his outright protests by coolly inviting him to leave with them peculiarly painful. Mendes allows a very long pause to hang here, during which the silence is filled with the sound of Petey's protracted moral collapse. The hints of non-inevitability are, you begin to realise, a paradoxical means of heightening events of the characters' impotence.

It's a production that makes the most of the play's very good jokes and adds a few of its own, like beginning with the perky 'period' (and slyly apt) signature tune to Housewives' Choice, or the moment when Bob Peck's Goldberg, after requesting that Lulu move her busty bulk off him for a second, flexes his knees cautiously as though quite incredulous to the strain they have borne. And in Nicholas Woodeson, the production is lucky to have one of the very best Pinter actors around, his McCann a menacing, unpredictable mix of edgy compulsion and sudden lurches into rottweiler rage.

The fact that Tom Piper's contained set can loom forward and recede in the blackness of the Lyttelton's vast stage is used to excellent creepy effect at the end of the last two acts. On the first occasion, Stanley's hysterically laughing face, caught in torch light, whizzes back from us almost cinematically and seems to vanish into its own gaping hole; and in the second, a street facade closes over the little interior, swallowing it up in what is deceptively described as suburban normality. 'I wonder whether Meg ever realises that Stanley is not coming back,' said a woman behind me. That comment tells you a lot about this play; the more normal query would be when?

The Birthday Party continues at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1

(Box office: 071-928 2252)

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