The Birthday Party

Wed 23rd – Sat 26th November 2011

reviews

Sophie Strang

at 23:54 on 23rd Nov 2011

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Wow. Sitting all the way through this play is truly a traumatising experience. If sneaking into lunatic asylums to laugh at bumbling maniacs is your thing, then this, without doubt, is the play for you. If on the other hand, staying in to play Buckeroo with a nice warm cuppa tea is more your style, well heck, this is still the play for you. Utterly harrowing, this performance is student theatre at its best and whilst one feels a little uncertain about describing the play as enjoyable, it is certainly entertaining.

Everything about the performance is strange and unsettling. The set itself, including off-white wall-paper, a fusty arm-chair and some stuffed birds on the mantelpiece, hints eerily at the corrupting forces to come. The house's main inhabitant is Meg, an elderly and excessively house-proud woman who is played by Glesni Ann Euros who decides to host a dinner party for her lodger, Stanley. Euros is absolutely perfect for this role. Soft spoken but assertive, her shuffles about the stage evoke both pity and laughter, making her tragi-comic character wholly endearing.

All of the six characters are burdened with fear, and at least five of them are burdened with varying degrees madness. One of the most appalling moments in the production arises when Goldberg (played exceptionally well by Will Hatcher), the play's fabulously slimy smiling villain, suddenly breaks down in mid-sentence: he tries to affirm a world view and, once, twice, three times, fails. Suddenly this terrifying villain is terrified himself, giving him a depth of character that makes Goldberg register unforgettably. Hatcher carries off some real tongue-twisting speeches with flair and does not break character for a moment- a really very impressive performance.

The other notable cast member was Barney White, playing McCann. His solemn upside-down smile carries him through the play marking McCann out as an oddly appealing sad clown whose attitude, initially the subject of humour, seems suddenly appropriate following the horrific end to the second act.

The highlight of the show (ironically?) comes with the turning off of all the lights, signalling a genuinely scary episode just before the play's interval. In a play so obsessed with perceptions and notions of sight, at this crucial turning point the audience themselves are forced to experience the literal and metaphorical blindness faced by so many of the play's characters (seen in the game of blind man's buff, in Meg's self-deception and finally in the breaking of Stanley's glasses as he loses all grip on reality).

Whilst this production contains moments of brilliance, it also has weaknesses. The breakfast scenes involving Petey and Meg are not quite exploited to their full comedic potential and Meg's extreme characterisation, though itself hilarious, can at times overshadow the more subtle humour implicit in some of the dialogue. Although Rory Fazan (playing Stanley) really comes into his own in the more shocking scenes towards the end of the play, he is less convincing in the first act, and though technically the play's protagonist, is generally upstaged by Hatcher and White. Stanley's first long monologue, which should grip the audience's attention and shed some new light on his character, unfortunately sounded rehearsed and fell somewhat flat.

Overall however, this is a great production which well captures the play's mingling of dark humour with dark tragedy and phantasmagoria with cold reality. As ever with Pinter we are left unsettled and go away with more questions than we started with. But the fact that we still come out of the theatre somehow satisfied, even delighted with our own sense of disgust, signals that the directors have treated the script exactly as they ought.

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Joshua Phillips

at 01:34 on 24th Nov 2011

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Pinter is one of the few British playwrights to be honoured with his own adjective – Pinteresque – and The Birthday Party, his second work, is the very epitome of this: the script lurches from the blackest of black comedies to high tragedy by way of pregnant pauses and silences that say more than any dialogue can.

By and large, this production lives up to Pinter’s adjective, but it rarely attempts the novel. The ‘kitchen sink’ element of Pinter’s staging is replicated faithfully, with the whole play set in one tawdry, faded living room from the middle of the last century. Likewise, the lighting is strictly minimal, the music non-existent. Whilst the production at Keble may not break any ground with this staging, it works admirably, grounding Pinter’s surrealistic, black humour in an inescapable reality: Pinter’s villains, Goldberg and McCann, are threatening not just because of their fantastical methods, but because of the incongruous setting in which their villainy takes place.

Instead, what stands out in any Pinter production, above the mise en scène, is the acting, and, by and large, this production of The Birthday Party does not disappoint. In particular, Will Hatcher as Goldberg is excellent, careering from classic, smooth-talking, East-End gangster, to a manic torturer in the blink of an eye, and then back again. Likewise, Barney White pulls off the morose and taciturn McCann – the counterpart to Goldberg – with an adroit skilfulness. One actor who fails to live up to their character’s potential, however, is Glesni Ann Euros, who plays Meg, the old woman who runs the guest house in which the action is set. Whilst it would be fallacious to say that there is no comedy in Meg’s character, it is a pity that Euros acts as though Meg is only a comic figure. Meg definitely is also a tragic figure: she is aging and showing signs of senility, not even able to remember the names of her guests; she has relations with two people, her patronising, largely-absent husband, Petey (Luke Gormley), and Stanley (Rory Fazan), who is rude to her, to the point of abusive and psychologically unstable even at the play’s outset.

Another disappointing aspect of this production is the pacing. Whereas the production luxuriates in scenes of awkward domesticity and pregnant pauses, scenes such as that which Goldberg and McCann ‘torture’ Stanley are not given such consideration. Rather, they tend to be shouted rapidly, which, as a method of staging, works, but does not give Pinter’s rather magnificent language the consideration which it deserves.

That said, this is a successful, but, more importantly, enjoyable rendition of an excellent play, and definitely one which merits viewing.

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