First Night: Pinter's play without important pauses fails to grab the audience

The Birthday Party Piccadilly Theatre London
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The Independent Online
HAROLD PINTER'S 1958 debut The Birthday Party polled a significant number of votes in the recent 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 longterm paying guest. Yet, instead of pursuing a standard thriller format, Pinter leaves us in the dark as to the reasons for such malevolence.

Instead, he builds high drama from the speech patterns and behaviour of his characters, creating terrifying tension and tying a theatrical noose around not only the victim's neck, but that of the audience.

Alarm bells go off from the very beginning: Barry Jackson is a nicely benign Petey but Prunella Scales - all curlers and pinny - plays Meg from a distance. She's doing "comedy acting" complete with an accent borrowed from Irene Handl. There's a lot to be said for having Timothy West and a fiercely Irish Nigel Terry play Goldberg and McCann as some kind of double-act but unless their banter is underpinned by a sense of threat, the tension never builds.

At the opening of the second act, McCann sits tearing a page of newspaper into strips. The silent scene is abstract, but the feeling should engulf you like ice: something verynasty is going on. Here, alas, the moment goes for nothing. It's as if 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. Harmston's fleet but flat approach results in this three act play whistling along without an interval in 100 minutes.

The surface text is played so literally and so fast that the actors race through the fearsome interrogation scenes as if they're doing a memory testing speed-run.

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