first night

The Birthday Party

Max Lindon experiences Harold Pinter's famous comedy of menace.

 When Harold Pinter’s second play ‘The Birthday Party’ debuted in 1958 it was panned by critics to the extent that the young playwright’s career was nearly ended there and then. It’s easy to see why critics at the time didn’t “get” ‘The Birthday Party’; as its larger than life characters, ambiguity of meaning and seemingly nonsensical dialogue could well be off-putting. However, such potential problems are solved in a production as polished as Hill College Theatre Company’s.

The play is set in a rundown boarding house in an English seaside town, where one-time piano player Stanley Webber (Luke Titmuss) is the guest of the eccentric proprietors Meg (Elle Morgan-Williams) and Petey (Matthew Chalmers). When mysterious strangers Goldberg (Jake Goldman) and McCann (George Troop) arrive, things take a bizarre and sinister turn. The first act left me intrigued, but hardly clamouring for more. Stanley’s past was hinted at but the action remained stuck in domestic drudgery. The attempt to build a growing sense of menace wasn’t helped by Titmuss’ performance, which lacked variation in tone regardless of whom he was conversing with. Generally, I found that Titmuss was far more effective at conveying his character physically rather than verbally, which meant that he improved in the 2nd and 3rd acts when he had less lines to deliver.

By contrast, the 2nd act was nothing short of sensational, with the tension growing to unbearable levels before the heart-stopping climax of the eponymous birthday party scene. Tricky elements such as quick-fire interchanges and dialogue taking place at both ends of the stage simultaneously were executed with finesse. Director Katie O’Toole deserves credit for turning the trickiest part of the play into something with real dramatic power. Even though the 3rd act never could quite live up to the lofty heights of the 2nd, it still packed a punch as various characters convincingly underwent psychological breakdowns.

There was a high standard of performances throughout, with the actors’ ability to bring out the subtext in what could’ve been meaningless lines no doubt also down to O’Toole’s assured direction. Morgan-Williams epitomised the high standard of characterisation with an eminently believable performance that brought comic relief without disrupting the play’s pervasive atmosphere of menace. Goldman was another standout, with a formidable stage presence and solid Yiddish accent. His partner in crime George Troop was also able to maintain his accent throughout, but found himself drifting into overacting territory at times. Strong characterisation was enhanced by excellent period costume and set design, courtesy of O’Toole and Assistant Director/Producer Kailin Solomons. Some niggling issues included a frequently referenced newspaper that didn’t fit at all with the late 50s setting, and some bizarre colouring applied to several actors’ hair that appeared blue rather than grey. Castle’s Senate Suite provided an intimate venue, but its grand tapestries didn’t quite fit with the setting of a dilapidated boarding house, and I suspect that sight lines may have been an issue for those at the back, particularly when actors were at the corners of the stage.

These minor concerns were far from enough to detract from the overall quality of the show so if you can get your hands on one of the few tickets remaining I would highly recommend it, the birthday party scene being worth the price of admission alone. 

8 May 2016

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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