The Birthday Party, Old Vic, Bristol<!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Birthday Party is set in a seaside B&B that is run by Meg. Pinter's 1957 comedy-thriller has had many famous Megs, including Beatrix Lehmann, Doris Hare, Joan Plowright, Dora Bryan and Eileen Atkins, all of them tottering about in their pinnies banging on about how refreshing cornflakes are.

The marvellous Sheila Steafel is the latest to wear the curlers. She gives a lovely performance, her vowels coming over all posh when the two sinister gentlemen come looking for her lodger, Stanley. There's more to Meg than meets the eye - there may even be something unseemly going on with Stanley. Pinter's boarding-house classic has many pervy aspects.

The Birthday Party is a cryptic crossword in which two bullies - one Jewish, one Irish - come to get Stanley for reasons that are hidden in the past. Who are they? What claim do they have on him? You never find out. But Pinter feeds clues and chilly Cold War menace into the rep-thriller format.

The play is also an unloving homage to the sort of peeling South Coast hovels that Pinter stayed in when he was an actor on tour. Conor Murphy's bright, clean box with pastel-blue stripes and fresh white paint is therefore wrong. You sniff in vain for the tang of seaside ozone and the smell of breakfast "fry".

The central event is Stanley's birthday party, a joyless affair at which Stanley (the excellent Ferdy Roberts) is reduced to a catatonic state after the visitors have worked him over with metaphysical menace and a nasty game of blind man's buff. Brian Protheroe is at home as a very Jewish-sounding Goldberg. His younger sidekick, the thuggish McCann, is played with a demented stare by Stephen Kennedy.

This pair, you feel, could be after any one of us. As the broken Stanley is carted off, Petey (Peter Gordon), the deckchair attendant, shrieks the line that is the play's motto: "Don't let them tell you what to do!"

Steafel is worth the price of admission alone, and the strong cast, which is attentively directed by Simon Reade, conveys claustrophobic menace. But I would have traded some of that menace for a dollop of real seaside terror.