Review: “The Birthday Party” at The Royal Exchange, Manchester, until July 6th.
Box office: 0161 833 9833. Website: www.royalexchange.co.uk
Wow! I thought I didn’t particularly like Pinter.
I have only seen a few productions and recalled only lots of pregnant pauses and veiled menace and, sometimes, I have tried to teach bits of his plays in extracts. Pinter does not work on the page, but he really comes to life on the stage and dramatically so in the Royal Exchange’s production of his first play The Birthday Party.
I was completely engrossed and enthralled. It is challenging, multi-layered and complex. I still don’t know if I understood all of it. So much of its power is in the words.
Pinter said that meaning begins with the words and the words are powerful. There is a wonderful circularity in the exchanges between Petey (Paul McCleary) and Meg (Maggie Steed), he a deckchair attendant and she a boarding house landlady, an amazingly funny banality that contrasts so much with the menace of the later scenes with Goldberg (Desmond Barrit) and McCann (Keith Dunphy) and returns as a terrible epitaph at the end.
There is the articulation, the fluency, the menace of Goldberg and McCann’s interrogation of the mysterious Stanley (Ed Gaughan), supposedly a pianist, the lodger in the Boarding House, which contrasts with Stanley’s descent into wordless incoherence.
Pinter was influenced and indeed part of the Theatre of the Absurd movement. His characters are grotesque, his plot exaggerated and surreal. But the audience are totally drawn into the world of a shabby South Coast boarding house. Is it just, as it might appear superficially, that Stanley is a crook who is being punished, or is he a more representative figure, the man oppressed by religion, McCann or politics, Goldberg?
Are the slightly simple minded Meg and the seemingly nice Petey bystanders or conspirators by inaction in the destruction of Stanley? This is drama that makes you think! The whole evening is made memorable by excellent performances by the whole cast including Danusia Samal as the flighty girl Lulu, all too willing to succumb to Goldberg.
Their performances reinforced my admiration for theatre actors who can learn such dialogue and maintain such discipline in the pauses. The design by Dick Bird gives an authentic period flavour and the use of the ascending and descending ceiling increases the sense of menace and oppression accentuated by Gregory Clarke’s effectively distorted sound in places. Congratulations to Blanch McIntyre on her direction. The Royal Exchange has had a cracking season and this is another one not to miss.
PIPPA MUNRO HEBDEN
Maggie Steed as Meg in The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter. Photo: Jonathan Keenan.
Desmond Barrit as Goldberg, Ed Gaughan as Stanley and Keith Dunphy as McCann in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Photo: Jonathan Keenan.