On Wednesday (and kindly sponsored by my mother) John and I went to see Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party at the Lyric Hammersmith. Some of you may remember that this was the site of the play’s first London performance and subsequent damnation by the press - it closed after 8 performances - despite Harold Hobson’s belated review, which described Pinter as possessing “the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London”.
Sitting in our (superb) seats waiting for the curtain to rise, I noticed two things: firstly the inordinate amount of over sixties who had turned up (this was, after all, a matinee) and secondly, that the stage, visible behind the dropped curtain, had been carpeted with pebbles. This excited me; an obvious clue that the set design could be a little peculiar, a little subversive – like the vast majority of Pinter’s works, after all.
I wasn’t disappointed. The curtain finally rose to reveal what was ostensibly an average suburban bed and breakfast-y front room complete with a back kitchen and some of those little doors that you can post food through. On closer inspection, however, the scrubby walls, which were a bizarre shade of what can only be called ‘salmony taupe’, were peeling at the edges; unadorned except for a ubiquitous set of flying ducks (lonely looking), a dirty mirror, sooty fireplace and fading, saggy armchair.
For me, this ties in with Meg’s nonsensical, inane pride: in the cornflakes (“are they nice?”); the solitary piece of fried bread (“it’s a surprise,”) and the house itself (“we’re on the list!”). Meg appears to live, childlike, in a bubble-fantasy in which she has a strange, mother-crush relationship with Stanley. She clings to facts that she considers certainties, like Stanley’s piano playing, but fails to grasp others, as we see in her garbled retelling of Stanley’s concert. I thought Sheila Hancock did a brilliant job of Meg, really acing the scenes with Petey and showing the character’s vulnerabilities as Goldberg’s ‘persuasive’ nature charms her into submission.
Alan Williams as Petey, however, was a bit of a disappointment. I always considered Meg and Petey’s relationship to be slightly more complex than that of a weary-husband-harping-wife scenario – for example, one wonders the reasons behind Petey’s staying with Meg in the first place, and putting up with her obvious infatuation with Stanley – and at the end of the play, when Petey decides not to tell Meg about Stanley’s leaving, it is suggested that this is due to a sense of protectiveness or duty. Likewise, Meg’s comment about Petey always complaining that Stan spends too much time in bed implies that his character plays a relatively important observational role in the mock family; an implication that was opposed by Williams’ monotonous, shouting delivery. In fact, I thought Williams was acting more like a robot on Xanax than anything. This really got to me, because it lead to Williams’ rendering of the all-important line “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” almost completely pointless.
Justin Salinger did a great job of Stanley, portraying him not as a bedraggled artist type (as some productions do) but instead really emphasising the bitterness of the character’s poisonous personality and simultaneously managing to convey the inherent desperation that comes with it. It is this weakness in Stanley’s personality that's later exploited by the sinister Goldberg and McCann (Nicholas Woodeson and Lloyd Hutchinson respectively).
I have to say at this point that Lloyd Hutchinson really stole the show. His timing and delivery were so spot on, bringing much-needed comedic relief to the role and to the play itself. Despite coming across at first as merely the beef to Goldberg’s brains, McCann turns out to be the foil against which Woodeson’s Goldberg is able to appear wicked. And yet Hutchinson’s comedic lines themselves provide an excellent foil for his dark side: as Goldberg remarks, though McCann might dither about before doing something, when it comes to the crunch he acts the part. The menacing side of McCann’s personality seemed exacerbated by the literal dark created by switching off the lights – symbolically, an action he’s ordered to do by Goldberg – and there was a thrilled collective gasp from the audience when he savagely snapped Stan’s glasses in half. And yet in contrast, in the last scene of the play, he balefully tells Goldberg with visible discomfort that Stanley, in his now near-catatonic state, is trying to fit the lenses back onto his face.
In comparison, Woodeson’s Goldberg seemed more of a doddery dodgy dealer than dastardly prosecutor. His weird mockey-Ameri-Jew accent grated the wrong way, and his attempts at comedy came off as pantomimic. Goldberg’s repeated, but dubious, recollections of childhood family time were almost stripped of their significance when spoken by Woodeson.
However much I’ve moaned about Goldberg and Petey, though, I think the actors who played McCann, Meg and Stanley really excelled in this production, and this, teamed with a great set and seamless stage direction makes it a must-see. I’m definitely glad I went. And to Pinter, father of the pregnant pause, cheers for persisting with it, eh.
Image from Flickr