(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/18.)
“The first test of any work of art,” claimed George Orwell, “is survival.” If that is true, it is one Harold Pinter’s play passes with flying colours.
Derided on its debut in 1958, 60 years on The Birthday Party has lost none of its capacity to intrigue. In Ian Rickson’s starry production, it emerges not simply as a rep thriller filtered through a European sensibility – a cross between Agatha Christie and Kafka, as a German director once said – but as a play of intense psychological realism.
It is well known that the action concerns the abduction from a seaside boarding house of a recalcitrant lodger, Stanley, by a pair of visitors. But Rickson immediately establishes the plausibility of the situation. Meg and Petey, who own the house, are often played as cartoon grotesques. Here, however, there is a key moment when Zoë Wanamaker’s trim, doting Meg and Peter Wight’s sturdily reliable Petey exchange wistful glances over the breakfast table about the son they never had. Instantly this establishes Stanley as their surrogate child, and explains why Wanamaker drops her shopping bags in terror on first encountering the visitors.