The Birthday Party (review)

The Birthday Party
The Birthday Party

THE first night audience came out of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party at Leighton Buzzard Theatre on Thursday full of praise for the outstanding performances by members of the town’s drama group.

But their effusive applause came with a rider: “It was tremendous – but what was it all about?”

You can analyse Pinter to death and there may not be a clear cut answer to that. What is assured is that The Leighton Buzzard Drama Group has pulled out all the stops to come up with a cracker of a comedy-thriller that is impossible to pigeon-hole.

Their courage in tackling far more complex plays in recent years shows a growing confidence in their abilities and a desire to break away from the traditional staple stodge so loved by small town am-dram groups.

Superficially we have a fascinating, but ultimately baffling tale, that will encourage debate among theatre-goers for weeks to come.

Pinter’s first outing with this Kafka-esque tale, set in a seedy seaside boarding house that he had the misfortune to visit in Eastbourne, came in 1958 and the hostile reception it received from the nation’s critics almost sunk the fledgling playwright’s career at the off.

Its storyline, which is often bewildering, ambiguous, and downright absurd, is all the more intriguing because of its confusion. Just watch the characters and apply your own interpretations as to who they are and what they represent.

Is this a plain and simple story about a man on the run whose sanctuary has finally been discovered? Is it a tale about a paranoid schizophrenic who is teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown? Or is it more likely, since this was written at the height of the cold war era, a darker political message about how the church or state can force their way into ordinary people’s lives?

Stanley Webber has probably had more entertaining birthday parties but it’s unlikely that he had ever endured a more memorable one.

The scruffy, unshaven and rather unkempt middle-aged pianist is a reclusive lodger in a rundown boarding house run by a simpleton of a landlady and her husband, the town’s deckchair attendant.

Life is full of inane banalities that push Stanley’s patience to the limit – until the arrival of two men in suits, one, McCann, possibly a defrocked priest who exudes menace at every glower to the audience and the other, an outgoing Jew by the name of Goldberg.

Their appearance plunges the story into Orwellian surrealism and, at one stage, Webber, whose paranoia swings wildly out of control, is the victim of a nightmarish interrogation during which his accusers end up talking absolute jibberish. It reminded me of the iconic 1960s TV series, The Prisoner, a story about a man unable to escape a place of sanctuary but similarly confronted by his own nightmares.

Andrew Meadows, always excellent at unsavoury roles, really gets under the skin of Stanley, turning him from the bullying aggressor to a pathetic, drooling victim who is ultimately robbed of his independence.

But there are electrifying performances from Bob Kempster as the sinister Irishman, McCann, and John Stone as the outwardly cheerful Goldberg – the men coming up with possibly two of the most frightening characters I’ve seen on an amateur stage.

Goldberg is a psychopath with a side-line in sadism and Stone makes him utterly plausible and almost genial. Kempster’s superb Irish accent and his character’s barely-controlled temper only strengthens the tension.

This is a great night of theatre and well done to director Ann Kempster.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you come away not comprehending the meaning or dialogue because I guarantee you’ll leave bursting with your own ideas about its message and that makes it a success in anyone’s book.

The Birthday Party runs until Saturday night. For tickets call the box office 0300 300 8125.

ANNE COX