It’s funny to think that when The Birthday Party first opened in London in 1958, at what is now The Lyric Hammersmith, it lasted just eight performances before it was unceremoniously shut down. Given a critical savaging, it’s said that Pinter was so downhearted he resolved to give up theatre for good.
Only a glowing review that appeared in The Sunday Times the weekend after it closed convinced the young playwright to persist with a career that went on to include the small accolade of a Nobel Prize in Literature (what do critics know, eh?).
It was an inauspicious start for a play now celebrating it’s sixtieth anniversary. It does so with a notable revival that includes more stars than The Sky At Night. Ian Rickson, who directed Pinter in his final appearance as an actor, takes the helm.
Set in a sleepy seaside town to the sounds of seagulls and gently rolling surf, the story focuses on Stanley (Toby Jones) the sole lodger of a rundown boarding house run by Petey and Meg (Peter Wight and Zoë Wanamaker). It’s his birthday. At least, that’s what the kindly Meg insists, despite Stanley’s protestations to the contrary. Intrigue arrives in the guise of two sinister strangers, Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), the first new lodgers for a year, who insist if there’s a birthday then there must be a party. Lulu (Pearl Mackie) is invited to join the celebration, but it soon becomes apparent that the pair are more familiar with Stanley than they initially let on.
An ominous atmosphere of thinly-concealed threat follows. But, despite the entertainment of the considerable talent on display, it has to be said that this isn’t a play that has aged well. Yes, there’s plenty of the brooding menace and ambiguous characters that you expect from Pinter, and it’s executed it’s expertly. But audiences in 2018 may quite rightly ask why the reverence for a play in which two such considerable actresses such as Zoë Wanamaker and Pearl Mackie inhabit characters whose only reason seemingly for existing is to either gratify or exasperate the men around them.
In the few short scenes that Mackie appears she’s propositioned, leered at, groped repeatedly, and assaulted, all whilst smilingly reassuring the guys what fabulous company they surely are. She serves no other purpose to the story. Wanamaker’s character by contrast is barely tolerated. For much of the time she’s simply a loveable but hectoring matriarch, sniggered at by the more knowing and unquestionably authoritative men.
At times it can make for uncomfortable watching, especially in the light of the myriad recent stories of the maltreatment and misrepresentation of women. Defenders may say it’s a timely revival of an important early work by a playwright of great renown. And that may be true. But surely now is the time to take a good long look at even celebrated work with a new critical eye, and ask whether these are still characters that offer vitality to our cultural conversation.
That’s not to say that the play isn’t without any merit, nor that it isn’t entertaining. It is by turns both funny and suspenseful and there’s real joy in watching such a fabulously talented cast.
But, as obviously good as the performances are, it’s difficult to see what The Birthday Party has to say that’s relevant to an audience in 2018. And although there’s no doubt that, on this run, it will see it’s way past eight performances, after that, maybe it would be best to blow the candles out for good.
At Harold Pinter Theatre until 14 April.