The Birthday Party, Duchess, London <br/> Mammals, Bush, London <br/> Talking to Terrorists, Playhouse, Oxford

There's terror. And there's Pinter...
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The Independent Culture

Everything is dirty round the edges in Lindsay Posner's strongly cast revival of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. The boarding house run by Eileen Atkins' libidinous old Meg is a sort of living hell. Her conversation, over and about the cornflakes, is maddeningly vacuous, while her dining room appears to be at the bottom of some metaphysical drain. The floral wallpaper fades, where the ceiling should be, into a filthy shaft that stretches away into the void. Maybe we are seeing through the eyes of Paul Ritter's Stanley, Meg's scrawny, unshaven, long-term lodger. He may claim he was a shining young concert pianist, yet he is evidently on the verge of a breakdown, screaming like a murderous sewer rat when Meg touches him. Indeed, this proves a nightmarish rat-eat-rat world when the new guests arrive: Henry Goodman's grinning, smart-suited Goldberg and his henchman, Finbar Lynch's McCann, who resembles an undertaker-cum-rodent with hatchet-shaped side-whiskers.

Everything is dirty round the edges in Lindsay Posner's strongly cast revival of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. The boarding house run by Eileen Atkins' libidinous old Meg is a sort of living hell. Her conversation, over and about the cornflakes, is maddeningly vacuous, while her dining room appears to be at the bottom of some metaphysical drain. The floral wallpaper fades, where the ceiling should be, into a filthy shaft that stretches away into the void. Maybe we are seeing through the eyes of Paul Ritter's Stanley, Meg's scrawny, unshaven, long-term lodger. He may claim he was a shining young concert pianist, yet he is evidently on the verge of a breakdown, screaming like a murderous sewer rat when Meg touches him. Indeed, this proves a nightmarish rat-eat-rat world when the new guests arrive: Henry Goodman's grinning, smart-suited Goldberg and his henchman, Finbar Lynch's McCann, who resembles an undertaker-cum-rodent with hatchet-shaped side-whiskers.

The production gets off to a slow start. Atkins plays her breakfast banalities for laughs, but she fractionally overdoes it, making this 1958 play look a bit caricatured and creaky. That said, she combines seedy lust and girlish romantic delusions, like some distant cousin of Tennessee Williams' fading belles. The way the cast flick between the comical and the sinister grows increasingly unnerving as Goldberg and McCann corner and begin grilling Stanley about unspecified past crimes and why he left "the organisation". Lynch is droll and scary as a diminutive heavy with a cold, brutal gleam in his eye. Goodman's Jewish accent comes and goes oddly, but he is otherwise riveting, relishing the black humour and letting the jocular mask slip to reveal a glare of vengeful loathing. There's also one hair-raising moment when he asks McCann to blow into his mouth and sits waiting, with his jaw flung open like some hellish Mr Punch.

Goodman and McGann may be smalltime mafia men but they foreshadow the interrogators in Pinter's later political plays. And nearly 50 years on, the shifts in the dialogue still seem electrifyingly radical.

Amelia Bulmore's outstanding first play is a domestic comedy that flips unexpectedly into scenes of intense grief and passion. She has previously written for TV and you may think Mammals is just going to be a sitcom about middle-class parenting. Niamh Cusack's Jane is trying to get her stroppy little girls off to school, as they holler about how they are not to be shouted at and blithely make a dog's dinner of the breakfast table. But later that morning Jane's husband, Daniel Ryan's Kev, returns early from work to announce, shatteringly, that he is in love with someone else. In the midst of this, their old friend Phil (Mark Bonnar) - with whom Jane has been secretly obsessed - turns up with his brazen designer girlfriend, Lorna (Nancy Carroll).

The "seven year itch" crisis is familiar terrain but it proves instantly engrossing in the Bush's intimate space. Moreover, although Lorna could have stepped straight out of Ab Fab, you mainly get the feeling that Bulmore is writing from closely observed personal experience here. Anna Mackmin's excellent cast quarrel with a fervid intensity and are extremely funny, too. And I've never seen infants' paradoxical monstrousness and comic charm, latent sexuality and innocence so brilliantly captured as here by the full-grown actresses, Helena Lymbery and Jane Hazlegrove. They are having a whale of a time, brattishly throwing their weight around and pleasuring themselves without shame on the furniture - producing staggered yelps of laughter from the audience.

Finally, Max Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint company, previously acclaimed for The Permanent Way, has produced another superb investigative docudrama (in conjunction with the Royal Court). Talking to Terrorists has been deftly woven together by Robin Soams using interviews with militant resistance fighters and people they've targeted, with ministers, diplomats, an army expert, a psychologist and everyday folk from London, Belfast, Uganda, Turkey and the Middle East.

The witnesses identifiably include Terry Waite, Mo Mowlam, Norman Tebbit, one of the IRA unit who planted the Brighton bomb, and the ex-ambassador Craig Murray who objected to the government using foreign intelligence apparently extracted through torture. Glimpses of these professionals' domestic lives are deliberately kept in the script, subtly qualifying the stated moral stances.

A quietly superb team of eight actors - including June Watson, Lloyd Hutchinson, Jonathan Cullen and Chipo Chung - play all the parts, just slipping into a different jacket or another accent. The individual stories are fascinating while the underlying point is to find the common denominators. This piece wisely draws its parallels with a light touch and keeps its psychological conclusions subjective, but the issues contemplated involve social deprivations, youngsters as prime impressionable material and the lasting mental scars of witnessing such violence. There are harrowing accounts of mass slaughters and torture, plus scorching condemnations, by insiders, of the workings of Blair's government and the situation in Iraq. ("It's a complete disaster. I'm not saying we will, but, oh yeah, we face strategic failure.") The piece is also, remarkably, entertaining and touching, not least when the ambassador is interrupted by his belly-dancing wife, and when Hutchinson's Waite recalls the two fantastically inappropriate books his captors gave him: Great Escapes by Eric Williams and A Manual of Breast-feeding - and "it wasn't even illustrated". You couldn't make it up. Inevitably, not the whole picture, but an arresting piece of work and highly recommended.

'The Birthday Party': Duchess, London WC2 (0870 890 1103), booking to 16 July; 'Mammals': Bush, London W12 (020 7610 4224), to Sat; 'Talking to Terrorists': Malvern Theatre (01684 892277), Tue to Sat; tour continues, finishing at Royal Court Downstairs, London SW1 (020 7565 5000), 4 to 30 July

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

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