Theatre: No pause, no claws

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The Independent Culture
HAROLD PINTER'S 1958 debut The Birthday Party is high up in the National Theatre survey of the century's great plays. Anyone coming cold to its latest revival, however, would be hard put to see why.

Two mysterious visitors, Goldberg and McCann, turn up at Meg and Petey's boarding house with malice aforethought, and terrorise Stanley, the paying guest. Yet, instead of pursuing a thriller format with everything neatly explained, Pinter leaves us in the dark as to the reasons for the malevolence and instead builds terrifyingly tense drama from the speech patterns and behaviour of his characters, tying a noose around the victim's neck, and that of the audience.

At least, that's the theory. But it's extremely difficult to pull off, and these actors have been cast adrift. Barry Jackson is a nicely benign Petey, but Prunella Scales plays Meg from a distance. She seems to have wandered in from Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane, doing "comedy acting" with an accent borrowed from Irene Handl.

Steven Pacey as Stanley also stymies himself by using a nasal style that puts both us and him at one remove from his character. Part of the problem is the casting. He looks strong enough to knock his interrogators flat, which unbalances the crucial power play.

Timothy West and a fiercely Irish Nigel Terry play Goldberg and McCann as a bizarre double act, but unless their banter is underpinned by a real sense of threat, the tension never builds. Here their actions appear merely baffling. At the opening of the second act, McCann sits methodically tearing a page of newspaper into strips. In a strong production, the effect is chilling. The silent scene may be abstract, but the feeling should engulf you like dry ice: something very, very nasty is going on. Here alas, the moment goes for nothing.

It's as if the director, Joe Harmston, has decided to banish the famous "pauses". Overly reverent, underpowered productions can make Pinter seem horribly portentous, but his pauses are there for solid, dramatic reasons. We should be glued to the dialogue's power of suggestion in the poetically constructed rhythms, but with Harmston's fleet-but-flat approach this three-act play whistles along without an interval in 100 minutes. The surface text is played so literally, so fast, that the actors race through the interrogation scenes as if doing a memory-testing speed-run.

Consequently, the all-important subtext remains dormant and we remain fatally disengaged. Scales manages a nice line in comic non-sequiturs but the humour should leaven the play's potentially thrilling undercurrents, which are rarely disturbed by Harmston's less than commanding grip.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's newspaper