The Birthday Party, Duchess Theatre, London

Secrets, lies and nasty surprises
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Hitchcock defined suspense in terms of a bomb under a table: suppose you show the audience a bunch of men playing cards round the table and suddenly a bomb goes off - that's a surprise. Suppose you show the audience the bomb being placed under the table first, and a clock ticking away as the men play on - that's suspense. In The Birthday Party, his first full-length play, Harold Pinter added his own contribution to the theory: suppose you show the audience there's something under the table, but you don't let them know what it is - only that it's definitely nasty. Suspense implies the possibility of release; Pinter offers an uncertainty that is altogether less easy to live with.

Hitchcock defined suspense in terms of a bomb under a table: suppose you show the audience a bunch of men playing cards round the table and suddenly a bomb goes off - that's a surprise. Suppose you show the audience the bomb being placed under the table first, and a clock ticking away as the men play on - that's suspense. In The Birthday Party, his first full-length play, Harold Pinter added his own contribution to the theory: suppose you show the audience there's something under the table, but you don't let them know what it is - only that it's definitely nasty. Suspense implies the possibility of release; Pinter offers an uncertainty that is altogether less easy to live with.

The uncertainties multiply: what is educated Stanley doing in a lodging house as seedy as the one run by Meg and Petey? (Peter Mackintosh's design places it squarely in post-war Britain, with yellowing wallpaper peeling off the walls, and offputtingly sturdy utility furniture.) What is Meg up to with Stanley when she takes him his early morning cup of tea, and does Petey know or care? Why does she insist it's Stanley's birthday when he's adamant it isn't? Is Goldberg's first name Nat or Simey or even Benny? Is McCann's first name Dermot or Seamus?

In this atmosphere of puzzlement, the ambiguity of Goldberg and McCann's position - gangsters pretending to be businessmen - seems pale and blunt.

Judging the level of uncertainty the audience can take is a major problem for any director of The Birthday Party, and for the most part, Lindsay Posner's production handles the equations with intelligence and elegance. But there are one or two places where he throws out a little too much information. In the opening scenes, Eileen Atkins' Meg is gorgeously poised between girlish gormlessness and lasciviousness; while Paul Ritter's Stanley - with his thick-rimmed glasses and three-day stubble seems riddled with ambiguities of class, education and - who knows? - sexuality. To have her poke her tongue in Stanley's ear and her hand down his shirt as soon as her husband's back is turned seems unnecessarily definite.

Elsewhere, opportunities are missed: when Lulu (Sinead Matthews) tells Goldberg he's the image of the first man she loved, he tells her: "It goes without saying." The line could imply mystery; Henry Goodman - more Jewish dealer than plausible thug - makes it a thrown-away social nicety.

There are moments, too, when the wrong kind of uncertainty drifts across the stage. The characters, you feel, should have a good idea of what is going on, even if they don't say so; but some of the shifts of mood - Stanley's flashes of anger at Meg; Goldberg and McCann's tremors of irresolution - here seem unaccountably abrupt, too deliberately aimed at unsettling the audience. I felt from time to time as if the balance of power had shifted too far towards the audience.

When The Birthday Party was first produced, it was reviled by critics who saw it as an inept copy of Beckett. Looking back, though, it seems clear that Pinter's influences came from outside the theatre: the set-up - two hitmen coming to a dead-end town to deal with an old associate - is taken straight from "The Killers", either the Hemingway short story or 1946 film based on it (and you can see in Pinter's spare dialogue lessons from Hemingway in minimising the flow of information). It owes something, too, to radio: the opening dialogue between Atkins and Geoffrey Hutchings' Petey reminded me strongly of The Glums, the dour and cloth-headed Ron and his not much smarter but aspirational young bride Eth in the Fifties comedy show Take It from Here. It's a tribute to Posner's production that it conjures up these associations: if he doesn't quite get the infectious unease of the very best Pinter, he is alert to Pinter's variety and shadings in a way that makes for a thoroughly enjoyable production.

Booking to 16 July (0870 890 1103)

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