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When Stanley Webber’s (Toby Jones) reclusive existence in a seaside boarding house is interrupted by two suited strangers, an isolated group of family and friends find their lives spiralling rapidly out of their own control in one of the West End’s most brilliantly unsettling productions.
Pinter’s iconic The Birthday Party was first performed in 1957, finding itself swiftly classified as a comedy of menace. Returning to the West End courtesy of director Ian Rickson, the latest reincarnation embodies both characteristics perfectly.
Stephen Mangan, portraying the leader of a pair of mysterious visitors, delivers the role with an enthusiastic grandeur. Matched by his physical stature, he dominates both in performance and character – matched by the brilliant ignorance of Zoë Wanamaker’s Meg Boles and the disenchantment of Jones’ Webber.
Together with Peter Wight as Meg’s distantly loving husband Petey Boles, Pearl Mackie as an immediately likable Lulu, and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the unsettlingly temperamental McCann, the cast drive the heavily symbolic tale forward with a perfect mix of humour and malevolence.
As the plot makes unpredictable leaps which ultimately sees an initially innocuous celebration devolve rapidly into a surreal nightmare, the play toys with the perception of reality. Webber delights in his contradictory history, played with a delicate insanity by Jones. Wanamaker’s obsession with breakfast in the comparably short opening act is simultaneously sweet and disconcerting.
As the play unfolds, so does the story’s ambiguity. Clearly enjoying the role immensely, Mangan’s Goldberg transforms from charming guest to devilish host. Mackie’s Lulu has her innocence destroyed, brilliantly shifting her character in the evening’s aftermath. In typical Pinter fashion, everything is questioned and little is revealed.
Through this The Birthday Party raises questions of identity, reality, religion and ignorance. It reveals itself as an exploration of character. Each of the six reflect elements of society and of humanity. The stellar cast effortlessly embody these complexities. Watching them is nothing short of mesmerising, as the play’s atmosphere descends towards its most bleak.
It’s a story that lingers, it’s hopelessness mirrored in the decrepit surroundings of the Boles’ boarding house. With the atmosphere heightened by a particularly powerful use of lighting, it encourages theatregoers to question the plot’s intricacies, and to revel in the perfect performances.
The Birthday Party is running now at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.co.uk.
Images by Johan Persson