Theatre review: The Birthday Party, Manchester Royal Exchange

4.00

 

An evening spent inhabiting Harold Pinter’s tensely disconcerting world is never going to be a sunlit stroll through the daisies.

There was a moment towards the finale of this excoriating revival of his breakthrough play that had even die-hard followers gasping for air.

As Stanley gags and dry-heaves in response to a final psychic battering at the hands of his mysterious interlocutors, some theatregoers were forced to turn away - physically recoiling and unable to watch the events on stage.

Pinter was always elliptical when it came to revealing the meaning of The Birthday Party. “The play is a comedy because the whole state of affairs is absurd and inglorious. It is, however, as you know, a very serious piece of work,” he wrote to tell its first director Peter Wood in 1958.

Yet there were plenty of laughs, it is true, although perhaps for the most part these utterances would more accurately be described as a release of tension in the form of a knowing chortle, certainly at the beginning, before the decent into fully-fledged horror.

The setting – a gloomy boarding house in a seaside town – and the chief protagonists Petey, Meg and Stanley, were based on a real encounter that Pinter had whilst appearing in rep in Eastbourne. The sinister Goldberg and McCann, played by Desmond Barrit and Keith Dunphy who masterfully embody the roles of policeman, secret agent, priest and hoodlum, was from the playwright’s own extraordinary imagination.

The set sticks faithfully to the dreary interiors of the age, spindly austerity furniture and serving hatches, ketchup and brown sauce bottles add the only touch of brightness to the diet of fried bread and sour milk cornflakes.

The actors meanwhile ride the silences and taut dialogue with supreme skill. Ed Gaughan’s Stanley is outstanding. He is a nasty, unshaven Eric Morecambe, with pyjamas like a prison camp uniform, and without the jokes, cruelly taunting Maggie Steed’s heartbreaking Meg over her many insecurities.

But it falls to Paul McCleary as her otherwise quiescent deck chair attendant husband to offer up, what according to Pinter is the most important line of the whole piece – invoking Stanley to stand up for himself as he undergoes an early form of extraordinary rendition.

Guessing what the whole thing is about is one of the great pleasures of The Birthday Party, if that is the right word. It might be difficult to watch at times but it is impossible to stop thinking about.

Manchester Royal Exchange until 6 July

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935