×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

West End Review: ‘The Birthday Party’ With Toby Jones, Stephen Mangan, Zoe Wanamaker

With:
Toby Jones, Pearl Mackie, Stephen Mangan, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Zoe Wanamaker, Peter Wight.

“The Birthday Party” is sixty years young. Harold Pinter’s first full-length play might be showing its age here and there, but it still seems more punk than it does pensionable. At least, it does when done well — and director Ian Rickson’s starry anniversary revival (with Toby Jones, Stephen Mangan and Zoe Wanamaker, among others) is done very well indeed. It’s a jangling, unsettling, destabilizing watch — and one that still manages to chime with the times.

“The Birthday Party” famously confounded the critics on its first outing in 1958, many mistaking its artful ambiguity for willful obscurity, but watching Rickson’s fine-tuned production, you start to sympathize with them. Halfway through, you seem to succumb to double vision. The play starts to blur and its characters seem to contain contradictions — or do they? Nothing entirely adds up, none of it’s quite clear, and then, having bamboozled your brain, Pinter starts shredding your nerves. You leave a little less certain of the way of the world. At long last, you think, Pinter done properly.

Set in a shoddy guest house on England’s sleepy south coast, “The Birthday Party” slowly swells into an unlikely, unstable thriller. Stanley — a bed-headed brainiac played by Jones — has lived here for a year in the guise of a concert pianist, rarely leaving the house, nor apparently needing a job. He’s mothered by its simplistic, pliable owner Meg (Zoe Wanamaker) and let be by her husband Petey (Peter Wight), a deckchair attendant, but something or other smells off — his contempt for his hosts perhaps, or his pajama top shirt. His twitchiness when two men turn up in town confirms it. What’s he got to hide?

Pinter might ask: What have any of us? The point is there’s no getting away; no matter how far he’s come (all the way to the sea), how low-key his lodgings and how well he’s covered his tracks, his past has caught up with him. As Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann and Mangan’s Goldberg glide into the guest house with Cheshire Cat grins, Stanley freezes to the spot. The organization has tracked its target down — but why, and who, and what and how?

Rickson frames each half with an image of idle destruction: Stanley watching a flame eat through a match, McCann tearing a newspaper into thin strips. That wantonness reaches out into the rest, and the two new arrivals toy with their victim as they break him right down. For all their outward civility, their slick hair and spick suits, Goldberg and McCann take a dead-eyed delight in snapping his spirit — almost without laying a finger on him. Vaughan-Lawlor prowls the room like a panther poised to pounce, while Mangan fires his quickfire questions like a cardsharp shuffling at speed: “Is the number 846 possible or necessary?”

Rickson directs with a keen eye for detail, and splinters of dialogue lodge whole new suspicions. Wanamaker’s low sigh about “some lovely afternoons in that room” — Stanley’s — suggests the two have shared a bed as well as breakfast, beneath him though it seems, while Wight’s controlled contempt for his wife suggested he’s hiding something too.

Against that precision, Rickson embraces the inexplicable, be it the impromptu whistle-off between Stanley and McCann, or the sexual hum of Goldberg inviting his partner to blow in his mouth. True, some lines creak, and some moments go for broke, but there’s no denying that Pinter tapped into something. When Rickson keys into the play’s icy rhythms, he instills the action with this shrill, silent tension — a stand-off so strained it feels like a coiled spring. It’s pure potential energy, a sprung trap ready to snap; fingernails down blackboard stuff. Everything’s eerie — the scrape of a chair across floorboards, the five whisky bottles laid out in a row. If the Quay Brothers just overdo the aesthetic of gothic-on-sea — too much peeling wallpaper, too many burnished mirrors — then Hugh Vanstone’s queasy natural lighting works like a dream.

Yet what makes this “Birthday Party” all the more menacing isn’t the active threat in the room — the total control Goldberg and McCann exert over Stanley — it’s the unspoken power that hangs over the whole. That the organization can track Stanley down is terrifying enough, that Wight leaves the faint suspicion that he’s in the know is quietly horrifying. He lets Petey’s convenient absence linger — a chess match, he says — and his concern the next day opens the possibility he knows what’s gone on. What hold, you wonder, does the organization have on him?

Because it has one on everyone — Mangan makes that quite clear. Even as he goes to town on his target, you see him clock that he could easily be next. Step out of line and Stanley’s fate, as a former organization man, could be his own. That’s what’s bone-chilling, how powerless these men are and how oblivious the women. Pinter’s organization echoes our own surveillance state, its wariness of whistle blowers and its conspiratorial control. The system, in the end, could chew any of us up.

West End Review: 'The Birthday Party' With Toby Jones, Stephen Mangan, Zoe Wanamaker

Harold Pinter Theatre, London; 796 seats; £125 ($173) top. Opened, Jan. 18, 2017; reviewed Jan. 16. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Production: A Sonia Friedman Productions production of a play in two acts by Harold Pinter.

Creative: Directed by Ian Rickson; Design, the Quay Brothers; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; sound, Simon Baker; movement, Imogen Knight.

Cast: Toby Jones, Pearl Mackie, Stephen Mangan, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Zoe Wanamaker, Peter Wight.

More Legit

  • CAROL CHANNING HERSCHFELD. Actress Carol Channing

    Remembering Carol Channing: A Master of Channeling the Power of Personality

    There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators. Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda Among Celebrities Remembering Carol Channing

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernadette Peters are among the slew of celebrities taking to Twitter to pay tribute to late singer, comedienne and actress Carol Channing. Known for her starring roles in Broadway’s “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” the legend of the stage and screen died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, [...]

  • What the Constitution Means to Me

    Listen: How Things Got Scary in 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    For a decade, writer-performer Heidi Schreck had wanted to write a play inspired by her experiences as a teen debater. But over the years the show started to develop into something both urgently political and deeply personal — and things got scary. In the Broadway-bound “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck reimagines her speech-and-debate [...]

  • Carol Channing Dead

    Carol Channing, Star of Broadway's 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Dies at 97

    Larger-than-life musical stage personality Carol Channing, who immortalized the characters of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!,” has died. She was 97. Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Her publicist B. Harlan Boll confirmed the news. He wrote, “It is with [...]

  • 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    'What the Constitution Means to Me' Transfers to Broadway

    “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a buzzy Off-Broadway production that counts Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem among its fans, is making the move uptown. The play will come to Broadway this spring for a 12-week limited run at the Helen Hayes Theater. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is one part civics lesson, one [...]

  • Choir Boy review

    Broadway Review: 'Choir Boy'

    Honestly, I was afraid that “Choir Boy” — the sweetly exuberant account of a gifted prep school boy’s coming of age, written by “Moonlight” Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney — would be swallowed up in a Broadway house, after winning us over in an Off Broadway staging in 2013.  But aside from the odd set [...]

  • Jason Robert Brown

    Listen: How Ariana Grande Got Jason Robert Brown to Madison Square Garden

    Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown never expected to find himself performing onstage at Madison Square Garden. But he did — thanks to his pal Ariana Grande. Brown met Grande before she was a superstar, when she was in the 2008 Broadway cast of his teen musical “13.” The two have kept in touch ever since [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content