The Birthday Party returns to the London stage to celebrate its 60th anniversary with an all-star revival. Set in a seaside boarding house, we are introduced to a bizarre host of characters. Meg (Zoë Wanamaker) fusses over Petey (Peter Wright) as he tries to enjoy his cornflakes, banal conversation passing between them. She frets that Stanley (Toby Jones) isn’t up yet and goes to wake him, treating him as though he were the son she never had. He in turn behaves petulantly and easily takes on the juvenile role, showing signs of jealousy when it is mentioned that other guests are expected. The eventual arrival of Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) adds a sinister edge, Goldberg’s friendliness clearly a front. When Meg mentions that it is Stanley’s birthday (which he denies) they insist on throwing him a party, in which chaos descends.
Stanley makes an intriguing central character whose history is called into question. A failed pianist that has been the sole guest at the boarding house for the past year, he seems to lack many social skills. Lulu’s (Pearl Mackie) attempts to tempt him to go for a walk fall flat, and he is prone to tantrum. He plays the drum Meg gives him childishly before working himself into a rage and flinging it across the room. He is reluctant to join in at his party, and during a game of Blind Man’s Bluff he attempts to strangle Meg. His interrogation by Goldberg and McCann suggests that he may have once been part of the organization that sent them.
The audience are given no background to the characters, and what is revealed is often later contradicted, leaving you with more questions than answers. If you want a play with a clear narrative and logical action then this is not the play for you. It swings between everyday conversation to jarringly bizarre scenes of intimidation, leaving the audience confused. The everyday is presented in an accurate degree that isn’t particularly enjoyable to watch, and the more intense scenes feel out of place without any narrative context. It’s a play that leaves you mulling over the characters after the event, a pastime perhaps more enjoyable than the act of watching it unfold. An intriguing play brought to life by a talented group of actors.
The Birthday Party is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14th April.