A Birthday to remember

Ed Gaughan in The Birthday Party
Ed Gaughan in The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party – Royal Exchange, Manchester

In a play with power and control at heart, it’s no surprise that one of Harold Pinter’s best-known and over-analysed works, still retains its ability to command attention.

This faithful revival, by Blanche McIntyre – another young director drafted into the Exchange – remains just as perplexing, infuriating, enigmatic and engaging as The Birthday Party was, is, and ever shall be.

Pinter took several pages of notes to explain why he would not be supplying programme notes for an audience’s benefit! So it is what it is, a deft deconstruction of standard touring three-act plays of 1950s Britain.

Part thriller, part comedy, it’s set in a seedy seaside guesthouse where two sinister new lodgers, Goldberg and McCann severely upset the status quo.

Above all, this production reminds us of the casual cruelty and violence of language, Pinter’s legacy to a lot of the ‘wise guy’ conversations of the last 50 years of stage, film and TV.

Likewise, in the moment in which McCann solemnly and oh-so-slowly tears newspaper pages, the writer is also able to invest menace (and mirth) into a mundane action.

Ed Gaughan plays the hapless Stanley as a feral creature, deserving of more audience sympathy than he gets, but it is a robust, physical performance that again marks him out as a specialist character actor.

Maggie Steed is superb as the guesthouse landlady and her opening exchanges of jaded, ritualised conversation with husband Petey (Paul McCleary) set the tone for the production’s abundant comedy. Desmond Barrit and Keith Dunphy make for a bulky Mutt, and lean Jeff, double act. Danusia Samal is young Lulu, too-easily seduced by the former.

The Birthday Party runs to July 6.

by David Upton