Theatre review: The Birthday Party, Manchester Royal Exchange

 

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

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