“The first test of any work of art,” claimed George Orwell, “is survival.” If that is true, it is one Harold Pinter’s play passes with flying colours.
Derided on its debut in 1958, 60 years on The Birthday Party has lost none of its capacity to intrigue. In Ian Rickson’s starry production, it emerges not simply as a rep thriller filtered through a European sensibility – a cross between Agatha Christie and Kafka, as a German director once said – but as a play of intense psychological realism.
It is well known that the action concerns the abduction from a seaside boarding house of a recalcitrant lodger, Stanley, by a pair of visitors. But Rickson immediately establishes the plausibility of the situation. Meg and Petey, who own the house, are often played as cartoon grotesques. Here, however, there is a key moment when Zoë Wanamaker’s trim, doting Meg and Peter Wight’s sturdily reliable Petey exchange wistful glances over the breakfast table about the son they never had. Instantly this establishes Stanley as their surrogate child, and explains why Wanamaker drops her shopping bags in terror on first encountering the visitors.
Everything follows logically from this opening exchange. Watching Toby Jones’s excellent Stanley, I was reminded of the story of a respectable matron gazing at a portrait of Truman Capote in a bookstore window and saying to her companion: “Daisy, if that’s a child, he’s dangerous.” In the same way, Jones seems pampered and feral at the same time. He is given a drum as a birthday present and beats it like a baby before lapsing into a demonic rage. Far from submitting meekly to the intrusive visitors, Jones goes on to the front foot as if seeking to intimidate them.
Jones is not the first actor to play Stanley as a defiant rebel rather than a passive victim: what he brings to the role is the air of a tantrum-filled child whose psychological development, like his physical freedom, is sadly arrested.
Rickson extends this quest for realism to the Quay brothers’ design, which suggests the rising damp of second-rate digs, and to the surrounding performances. It is now commonplace to see the invasive Goldberg and McCann as symbols of the social and religious orthodoxy that Stanley rejects. But Stephen Mangan plays Goldberg brilliantly as a figure whose toothily smiling bonhomie conceals a profound insecurity. You see that in the final act, when Mangan becomes the classic organisation man terrified by the unpredictable.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor also brings out perfectly the paranoia of his Irish sidekick, as if to remind us of Pinter’s point that conformity to established values is no guarantee of inward peace. Pearl Mackie can’t do much with the neighbour, Lulu, who is chiefly there to remind us of Goldberg’s predatoriness; Pinter went on to write much more complex women.
Once or twice I thought Stephen Warbeck’s music, with its nerve-jangling chords, was too insistently menacing, as if we were closer to Elm Street than a seaside esplanade. But this is a production that does rich justice to this strange, elusive play, and it is packed with illuminating detail. Even Petey’s final dismay at seeing Goldberg in a bourgeois homburg underscores the fact that Pinter is advocating active resistance to what he termed “the shit-stained strictures of centuries of tradition”.
• At the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until 14 April. Box office: 0844-871 7627.