first night

The Birthday Party

Izzie Price pays a visit to Empty Shop to see CTC's final show of the year 'The Birthday Party'


‘The Birthday Party’ is one of Harold Pinter’s most famous and well-renowned plays, and it is one that I am myself familiar with, having studied it last year. As a consequence of knowing the play well, I was interested to see how Castle Theatre Company would approach this challenging work, and if their adaptation would do it justice. And I have to say, I thought they did.

The play is undoubtedly chilling, no matter how it is staged. Set across the course of 24 hours, we are introduced to the married couple Petey and Meg, their permanent boarder Stanley and two menacing strangers Goldberg and McCann, who turn Stanley’s birthday party into a nightmare with horrific consequences. The venue: Empty Shop proved to be the perfect for this adaptation. The play is set in Petey and Meg’s kitchen, and with the venue allowing the audience to be so close to the action, we felt as though we genuinely were sitting in the kitchen with the actors. The venue also helped achieve the naturalistic aspect of the production – the simple table, chairs and drinks cabinet, positioned realistically in the small space, actually evoked a very real sense of where the actors were supposed to be.

There can be no doubt that this is an impressive production. Several scenes, such as the mental torture of Stanley and the birthday party itself, had me on the edge of my seat, totally absorbed in what was going on. One of the main reasons for this was the incredibly high quality of acting.

Maurice Samely’s Stanley was very strong throughout. As a character who is supposed (I think) to be slightly mentally unbalanced, he was both sympathetic and terrifying in equal measure. I mean this in the best way when I say that his most convincing scene was his final one in which he said nothing at all, but simply stared into space, showing how he was utterly defeated, and making us wonder what he could possibly be thinking behind his glazed eyes.

Outstanding performances were delivered by both Carrie Gaunt, as Meg, and Edward Cherrie, as Goldberg. Gaunt’s performance from beginning to end was stunning. She was utterly convincing as an elderly woman, suitably irritating, as she is supposed to be, in the first scene when serving Petey and Stanley breakfast, and then evoked immense empathy from the audience when she couldn’t contain her delight at the thought of a birthday party for Stanley. Cherrie seemed to be the actor with the firmest grasp of Pinter’s complex meter; at times, the pace was lacking from the other actors in their delivery, and pace is imperative with Pinter. Cherrie brought a brilliant energy to the stage, while equally bringing with him a menacing presence that was extremely unnerving.

Unfortunately, there were certain directorial decisions that didn’t entirely work. I thought it was an error to place Stanley in a chair facing upstage during the verbal interrogation scene; it meant we had no idea how he was reacting to the abuse he was receiving, and also meant that his scream seemed to come from nowhere, with no build up, and so sounded slightly awkward. Equally, in the black-out scene during the birthday party, it was slightly unbelievable that Lulu (Olivia Bowsher) would make no noise or protest when Stanley picked her up, threw her on the table and attempted to rape her, even though she knew the room was full of people. This said, I felt Bowsher could have been slightly braver with her performance throughout; Lulu is an incredibly confident character (at least on the surface) and I think Bowsher could take a few more risks with her performance to make this confidence more convincing.

However, while there were a few staging decisions I didn’t necessarily agree with, I do think this is an extremely high quality production and certainly one worth watching. While it is certainly chilling, there are some very humorous moments, especially from Gaunt and Cherrie. This production has managed to find the perfect balance between comedy and disturbing drama, which meant that while we were shocked, and slightly terrified by the end, we were able to have a few laughs along the way which lightened the atmosphere. CTC are going out with a bang this year with ‘The Birthday Party’ - Dom Williams (Director) and his team should be proud. 

26 June 2014

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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