Thursday 8 December 2016

Theatre: This 'Birthday Party' sorely lacks menace

Pinter's sinister genius is entirely missing from a new production

Emer O'Kelly

Published 23/05/2016 | 02:30

Imogen Wilde as Lulu, Jonathan Ashley as Goldberg, Cheryl Kennedy as Meg, Declan Rodgers as McCann. Photo: Sheila Burnett
Imogen Wilde as Lulu, Jonathan Ashley as Goldberg, Cheryl Kennedy as Meg, Declan Rodgers as McCann. Photo: Sheila Burnett

It would seem that Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party is a play about a man having a nervous breakdown. Well, that's what an intricate study of suggestion, terror and manipulation is reduced to in the London Classic Theatre production of the Pinter masterpiece. The impression is that director Michael Cabot has not so much failed to impress the play's multiple layers of sinister meaning and innuendo on his cast, as that he has chosen to ignore them, and go for an (admittedly spirited at times) recitation of the lines' superficial meaning.

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But while The Birthday Party is very funny, it's also about a party that wasn't. The implications are all there, with the surly Stanley rootless and living a defensive existence in the sleazy "boarding house" run by Meg and her husband Petey, only to be roused to something near terror by the arrival of the smooth-talking Nat Goldberg and his enforcer/thug friend McCann. We even know that they have been sent to "fix" Stanley for some nameless crime against a nameless "organisation".

The pointless, double-meaning conversations that lead nowhere; the contradictory meanderings that leave us suspended; all are aimed at one thing: a warning that the world is a terrifying place when you step out of line.

And when, in Act Three, Stanley is led on stage, inarticulately gibbering and unable to resist what will undoubtedly be his fate when he's taken away by Goldberg and McCann, we are left to swallow hard and hope to keep the nightmares at bay as to the nature of the overnight "party" which has reduced him to what Goldberg silkily calls his "nervous breakdown".

Lulu, of course, knows. The "slapper" visitor, who is the victim of a sexual attack, knows something else as well: she has seen the contents of McCann's closely-guarded briefcase: the tools of his trade, as it were. And she realises life holds many other horrors.

Sadly, none of this emerges in this production, with only Cheryl Kennedy as the goofy Meg seeming to have any grasp of the play's layers. The cast has Gareth Bennett-Ryan as Stanley, Jonathan Ashley as Goldberg, Declan Rodgers as McCann and Ged McKenna as Petey.

The production is designed by Bek Palmer and lit (atrociously, in my opinion) by Andy Grange. It was at the Everyman in Cork, and will tour to Coleraine, Letterkenny, Armagh and Monaghan before coming to the Gaiety in Dublin on May 30, after which it will complete its UK and Irish tour in Britain.

'The conversations leading nowhere are aimed at one thing: a warning the world is terrifying when you step out of line'

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