THEATRE: Birthday Party; Contact Theatre at the Dancehouse, Manchester

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The Independent Culture
The strength of Harold Pinter as a dramatist may be that he doesn't know what it is he has to say about the world. Places and people look ordinary and familiar enough, but for Pinter there is the restless suspicion that something else is going on. But, unable to be the kind of romantic artist who can strike through the mask, he shifts anxiously about, peeking and peering, seizing on clues and shaking them. His plays work when this undefined anxiety is transmitted to the audience.

This sense of uncertainty about what we see is brilliantly created in the opening image of Andy Farrell's excellent revival of The Birthday Party. Designer Simon Banham gives Meg and Petey's living-room a disconcertingly double character. The pottery ducks on the wall look as lumpish as the wooden table that squats centre stage, but, bleached and scoured in the acidity of Paul Colley's lighting, the room as a whole has a real, if fluorescent, seasidey feel. What's more, at first, the room looks to be dissolving as Colley ripples horizontal light through the mobile strips of a fly-curtain to give walls and ceiling the evanescent shimmer of water. Add the subtle distortions of the convex wall-mirror - in which we can just glimpse our distant selves - and here is a perfect scenic realisation of the play's uncertainties.

Uncannily too, the characters all seem slightly too big for their setting. As Stanley, whose myopia is not only literal, Rupert Holliday Evans seems like, and has the deportment of, a lighthouse. Labouring over his cornflakes, John Jardine's stolidity as Petey seems to smother half the room, and Doreen Mantle as Meg, her apron tied high above her waist, tippy-toes about as though negotiating a doll's house. All this supplies the sense of claustrophobia, but also of their sometimes comic, mostly painful ham- handedness.

For all their unexplained omnipotence, the sinister visitors Goldberg and McCann prove similarly maladroit. As McCann, Kieran Cunningham looks a very heavy heavy, and his mind is equally weighed down. There is a deep, sexual discomfiture about him, perhaps glancingly illuminated by Goldberg's quip about his only having been defrocked six months ago. Even Goldberg, whose spiel commands everyone, is shown by Malcolm Hebden to be obscurely wounded, his repetitions upon his lost mother and wife, real or imagined, aching with his sense of homelessness. Both are so ill-at ease all they can do is search for victims, just as Meg and Petey are so numbingly settled they cannot find the energy or means to love. No moment is more telling here than when Petey suddenly says to Stanley, as Goldberg and McCann take charge of him, "Don't let them tell you what to do!" then subsides feebly into his chair. The sense that comes over so strongly from this illuminating production is that we have reason to fear both these kinds of weakness - in others and in that mirror.

To 22 Feb (0161-274 4400)

Jeffrey Wainwright