Gallery and review: The Birthday Party, New Vic Theatre

“There’s a new play on at The Palace,” Petey reads from his newspaper over his cornflakes, “and there’s no singing or dancing.” His wife Meg asks what do they do, then. “They just talk.”

Gallery and review: The Birthday Party, New Vic Theatre

Gareth Bennett-Ryan as Stanley, Cheryl Kennedy as Meg. All pics by Sheila Burnett

After a run of productions replete with highly entertaining singing and dancing, The New Vic is now giving us Pinter – via the excellent touring company London Classic Theatre – in which the half dozen actors ‘just’ talk. And it’s captivating, thrilling, and thoroughly entertaining.

Being Pinter it is also comic, dark, enigmatic, deeply troubling. And he has managed to squeeze in a sort-of song and a sort-of dance -- both of which are all those things.

But the talk is where the magic lies. Discrete dashes of language are applied to the claustrophobic canvas of the seaside-boarding-house living room like paint on an impressionist’s canvas. The reclusive guest Stanley tells us he used to play the piano and gave a concert at which “My father nearly came to hear me.” Landlady Meg asks wistfully “Am I really succulent?” Petey works as a deck-chair attendant who “is out in all weathers.”

When Goldberg (smart-suited, sweet-talking, Jewish) and McCann (red braces over polo-shirt, taut muscles, recently de-frocked Irish priest) enter the picture the brushstrokes start to coalesce. We can identify shapes and forms, and a sense of where we’re going, however loosely shifting the whole picture still seems.

Who are these men who set about Stanley with such fierce, unexplained interrogation? “Why did you leave the organization?” they shout at him in a rapid-fire tirade. “Do you recognise an external force?” But it is Goldberg and McCann who work for the external force. An underground theocracy? A Kafkaesque bureaucracy? A future president Donald Trump’s secret police?

“This house is on the list,” Meg reminds us repeatedly. Stanley, clearly, is on another one. But as the picture comes together it seems likely that there is a list, too, on which sit the names Goldberg and McCann.

I thought the whole picture would cohere meaningfully around Petey when he gives a desperate warning to Stanley: “Don’t let them tell you what to do.” But the closing look of utter desolation on his face left me wondering if I wouldn’t rather leave the whole uncertain.

The simple set, on a raised dais without walls, made the most of the intimate New Vic space (though I’m not sure we needed the literal skeletons under the floorboards). Every word and nuance seemed available to us all.

To my surprise and delight the house was almost full on opening night. It’s a short run, so hurry for a ticket if you want the theatrical thrill of one of our best modern classics, skilfully performed and presented.

By John Hargreaves

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