The Birthday Party. Sounds fun, doesn't it? In fact, it is more like a nightmare. The event is an unwanted and painful experience for Stanley, the unemployed long-term guest in a quiet seaside boarding-house; and Pinter's play is an uncomfortable experience for the audience. It does not surprise me that the first production, in 1958, closed after only half a dozen performances. It was probably one of the London audience's earliest experiences of 'Theatre of the Absurd' (as the genre had yet to be named by Martin Esslin), which up until then had been primarily a French phenomenon.
Harold Pinter's first major play includes many features of earlier absurdist works: for instance, the disjunctures of dialogue of Waiting for Godot, the emotional crescendo with mounting irrational verbiage of Ionesco's The Lesson, the agonising moment of crippled contorted inarticulacy of The Chairs. However, it is more disconcerting to watch than many out-and-out absurdist works because it just trembles on the edge of reality. With those and other absurdist dramas, we know as an audience that we have to reach our own conclusions about the meaning and the message, whereas with The Birthday Party, there is always a lingering hope that at some point all will be explained. The setting and the characters are so realistically and clearly drawn, it is all the more difficult to reconcile the ambiguities.
London Classic Theatre has done an excellent job of bringing Pinter's play to life on the stage. The set is a perfect reconstruction of a 1950s seaside boarding-house – you could almost smell the accumulation of odours of fried bread of decades past in the faded carpets – but without the walls, so the play can be performed in the round. The actors are superb: their characters are all just very slightly larger than life, and the pacing is perfect. There are plenty of humorous moments, in which Pinter's wordplay is delivered beautifully. The overwhelming sensation of menace is powerfully conveyed. I think my only criticism of the production is the use of lightning flashes to reveal the skeletons beneath the floorboards at moments of high drama. This seemed a rather heavy-handed way to bring the metaphor of 'skeletons in the closet' to life, and distracted attention from the action at critical moments.
London Classic Theatre last visited Cornerstone with their imaginatively designed and definitive production of Waiting for Godot last year, and on the basis of the very high quality of these two productions, I am very much looking forward to their next offering.