Puzzling, intriguing, disturbing – but also riveting. A piece of theatrical history played the Devonshire Park this week with Pinter’s The Birthday Party.
Join me, if you will, on a time trip. It is 1958, and British theatre is becalmed. Undemanding Coward and Rattigan productions stay well within the comfort zone...but storms will soon break. John Osborne and Arnold Wesker are bristling with anger, while Beckett and Ionesco take a new direction. And now, who is this young Harold Pinter?
The Birthday Party is a parody of a play, set in a boarding house too tedious for belief, until startling and sinister things happen. Actually a stay in Eastbourne as a young actor, as he reflected later, “got me on to the first page”. He described “filthy, insane digs” and a washed-up resident who “had nowhere else to go”.
Now, London Classic Theatre brings this classic skilfully to life. Production values are intelligent and imaginative: the set is a kind of platform, raising the action to a little parallel world, two or three feet above reality – but beneath the platform you glimpse skulls and skeletons, like some medieval vision of Hell. Nihilism, but laced with vivid menace.
Failed concert pianist Stanley – the outstanding Gareth Bennett-Ryan – exists rather than lives, fearful of the world outside and mothered by Cheryl Kennedy’s hapless, neurotic landlady and her husband (Ged McKenna with fleeting glimpses of actual normality). Young Lulu, an engagingly enigmatic Imogen Wilde, pops in and out with no discernible purpose.
Then two insidious arrivals shatter the tedium: the cold, controlling Goldberg and brutish, explosive sidekick McCann – superb and gripping performances from Jonathan Ashley and Declan Rodgers.
There is comedy, but it is always nervous laughter and the actors can twist it in an instant to a dark menace that echoes Kafka. There is threat behind every line, and fear in every shadow. And where does it lead? This is no easy ride for audiences, who instinctively want a story that resolves and an outcome that satisfies. Instead the plot is elusive, veering in new directions every time you think you are grasping it.
Drama always holds up a mirror to life and to human nature. Pinter’s is a distorting mirror, an image of behaviour that is not-quite-normal, but slipping into something unnerving and grotesque. When theatre does not challenge, explore, push boundaries, it dies. The Birthday Party does not show us theatre as it should always be, but it shows us where theatre has the capacity to take us. Brilliant. By Kevin Anderson.