David Farr’s revival of The Birthday Party opens at the Lyric Hammersmith 50 years, almost to the day, after its first presentation at the same venue. Then, it lasted less than a week, whipped off with indecent haste because of bad reviews. With Harold Hobson as the play’s only supporter, even the usually insightful Kenneth Tynan failed to see its qualities.
Now, looking fresher-faced than it has in a long while, this earliest of works sparkles and crackles with wit and imagination, as Pinter’s damaged people slosh around in the dark, splitting the skin of more than a child’s drum.
Sheila Hancock’s simple-minded landlady yearns for a lover or child, as she lives in fear of the men in the van and their wheelbarrow. As her dull deck-chair gathering husband Petey, Alan Williams lumbers on the edge of other people’s unreason, while their adopted son and lodger, Stanley (Justin Salinger), enjoys his own reign of petty tyranny until the tables are turned and, like his own glasses, he’s snapped in two.
As the oh-so-Jewish philosopher-thug, Goldberg, Nicholas Woodeson holds his self-possession the longest but even he explodes like a sealed kettle reaching boiling point when some inner circuit is tripped. When not focussed on his craft of torture, Lloyd Hutchinson’s paper-tearing sidekick McCann dithers and drips, out of who knows what fear but perhaps the most damaged of all is Sian Brooke’s hauntingly beautiful Lulu, drawn to Goldberg’s authoritative father-figure and pulled back into a recurring childhood trauma.
And it’s out of the wreckage of childhood that all these ghouls act out some playground horror, as the rules of normal human interaction are put aside and the mechanics of power laid bare. McCann and Goldberg’s interrogation of Stanley, memorable for its dazzling torment by insult, is wincingly funny and utterly riveting, and the whole play is beautifully shaped by Farr’s direction.
The production is wonderfully buoyant, the stinging lines bouncing from actor to actor. Unlike some recent Pinter productions, it pays due respect to his artificiality and theatricality, and doesn’t descend into televisual naturalism and ordinariness.
With a terrifically seedy set by Jon Bausor (whatever “list” it’s on, this seaside boarding-house should be condemned), and an expert cast, this is the most successful of the string of recent Pinter revivals. The play will celebrate its own birthday on 19 May, with a gala performance, hosted by the playwright.