Review: The Birthday Party ★★★★ – Pitch-perfect Pinter in unnerving seaside fun at 60

Is it an accolade if your name becomes an adjective to describe your work as playwright? Brechtian is (perhaps lazy) shorthand for alienation and Pinteresque for menacing. Unsettling menace may permeate the sea air in the unnamed resort where Meg runs a shabby boarding house and husband Petey is a deckchair attendant, but Harold Pinter brings rather more to this party. He is laugh-out-loud funny for a start. His ear for the vagaries of daily conversation, the transactions and the power play, is acute; the heightened rhythms and repeats of his characters’ exchanges and what they reveal of their hopes, fears and relationships – and the pauses (carefully written into the script) – are entirely his own.

The Birthday Party was Pinter’s first full-length play, an out-of-town success so lambasted by London critics that it closed within a week. The party for its 60th birthday is a starry affair, testifying to the playwright’s success once we ‘got’ him. Director Ian Rickson is an old hand at Pinter, his production faithful to the instructions in Pinter’s script – and yes, as menacing as it is funny.

The living-dining room (by designers The Quay Brothers) is so authentic you can almost smell the mustiness, and I should know, as my late great-aunt ran just such a B&B in Bournemouth. Here Zoe Wanamaker’s Meg and Peter Wight’s Petey establish a daily breakfast routine. She fusses round him, seeking approbation for her fried bread and even her cornflakes, asking what’s in his newspaper and he humours her. It’s apparently banal, but hilariously surreal. Their relationship is also strangely touching.

Their one guest is long-term, ‘resting’ pianist Stanley. Meg’s eager anticipation of his arrival for breakfast is another proof of Pinter’s mettle, building on strategies picked up from days touring in rep in thrillers. When he finally appears, Toby Jones’s Stanley is a pugnacious, ungracious, dishevelled man-child, still pyjama-clad and unshaven. Meg’s relationship with the lodger she calls “the boy” is unsettling as the non-sequiturs continue. Asked if his fried bread is nice, he pronounces it “succulent”.  “You shouldn’t say that to a married woman!” retorts Meg, apparently without irony. Is he a child substitute or more?

Wanamaker is outstanding, vulnerable in her apparent simplicity, both easy and eager to please. She is perfectly matched by Wight and Jones, as they negotiate their relationships with subtle clarity.

Cue two new guests, Goldberg and McCann, a sinister pair, apparently signifying that the past Stanley is escaping holed up chez Meg has caught up with him. Goldberg is Jewish, McCann Irish, but their stereotypes are just a starting point, and they both live up to and transcend them in nicely-calibrated performances from Stephen Mangan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, respectively. Their violence and menace bubbles under a surface of bonhomie. Goldberg is the undisputed main-man, orchestrating the pair’s persecution of Stanley under cover of organising the eponymous party for him (though Stanley denies it’s his birthday), skilfully reeling in Meg with fulsome compliments and flirting with young neighbour Lulu (Pearl Mackie, vivid in a small role). Stanley’s more transgressive behaviour with Lulu suspends audience sympathy in a comically tense game of blind man’s buff that is his downfall.

Mangan has fun with Pinter’s authentic, if OTT, Jewish shtick, crowning a faux-sentimental party speech with “Mazel Tov! And may we only meet at simchas (Yiddish ‘on joyful occasions’)”. But the menace of Stanley’s nemesis is only heightened by his self-congratulatory recollections of an apparently perfect Jewish upbringing. Stephen Warbeck’s music and Simon Baker’s soundscape intensify the tension. An unmissable 60th birthday gift.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Johan Persson

Until Saturday 14 April. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 2pm (Wed & Sat only). £10-£85. Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1Y 4DN. 0844 871 7627. www.atgtickets.com