The Birthday Party

AC Productions presents Harold Pinter's 'The Birthday Party' at Smock Alley Theatre.

AC Productions presents Harold Pinter's 'The Birthday Party' at Smock Alley Theatre.

AC Productions presents Harold Pinter's 'The Birthday Party' at Smock Alley Theatre.

AC Productions presents Harold Pinter's 'The Birthday Party' at Smock Alley Theatre.

When Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party received its London premier at the Lyric Hammersmith on 19 May 1958, by and large, critics were not impressed. Many took issue with the writer’s refusal to clarify motivation and action. What Pinter reveals without ambiguity is that the play is set in a boarding house owned by Meg and Petey, somewhere in coastal Britain. Former pianist Stanley lodges with the couple, and not long into the first of three acts, Meg decides to throw him a birthday party, despite his insistence that her dates are off. They are joined by McCann and Goldberg, mysterious men in dark suits who torment Stanley throughout the evening before taking him away the next morning. What we don’t know is why Stanley came to live in the house in the first place, why he is so nervous, and what the unexpected visitors want with him. While Pinter’s art has been well recognized since the first production of this early play, these gaps still stand out as risky dramaturgical choices. The danger they pose is made all the more real given that the playwright mixes a symbolic terror with an altogether more grounded domestic realism, and if the latter overtakes the former, the point is lost. You might say that while Beckett (a significant influence on Pinter) makes it easier for an audience to accept the ominous preoccupations of his work by abstracting both character and setting, Pinter makes everyone’s job more difficult. Unless finally honed through sensitive direction, many of his plays can easily appear as rather superficial dramas. Typically, the power of his work lies in the threat of violence rather than its actualization.

AC Productions’ version of The Birthday Party doesn’t do itself any favours by immuring the performance so heavily in realistic design, despite the stage directions. A centrally placed kitchen table, velvet curtains, tacky ornaments, and a trio of diagonal ducks are among the dressings that strive to anchor the action in realism. From the get-go, this creates problems - not because a realistic set is unsuited to the play, but because the Smock Alley space demands that you work with it rather than against it. In Ian Lacey’s design, three buttery stage sides stop short like a studio set, overshadowed by the far more interesting stone and concrete walls of the theatre. In a space as specific as Smock Alley, this kind of staging sets up an impossible competition between the performance and the venue, and any attempt to contrive that we’re not where we are is a lost battle.

Notwithstanding, there are some solid performances in this production. Playing Stanley, Nick Devlin manages to capture the character’s tetchiness very well. His portentous anxiety is counter-pointed by the frivolity of Anne Brogan as Meg, although on occasion her silliness strays too close to pantomime, especially in the first act.

Things get a bit more complicated with the introduction of Vincent Fegan and Paul Kealyn, who respectively play McCann and Goldberg. This is not because they give poor performances, as such. Rather, as the agents of a veiled menace, they must pose a threat rather than boldly administer one. Fegan is most effective when obsessively tearing a newspaper into vertical strips, giving up his cartoonish squint for deeper engagement, but he moves a tad too quickly, thus depriving the gesture of its unsettling peculiarity. Kealyn, playing the ostensible leader, errs on the side of the avuncular. After kissing the sprightly Lulu (Aine Lane), he continues to sport her bright red lipstick, pushing him a step too close to comedy.

Apart from a few complete black outs, little attention is given to lighting design. This might have been one way to add some welcome shade.

It’s a hard balance of elements to strike, especially over two and a half hours. However, more careful direction could certainly have fine-tuned the crucial dynamics between characters so that personas might recede while allowing the darker undertones to slowly uncoil and come to the fore. Fundamentally, what the production misses is that the communication of terror, unlike horror, is essentially a subtle art.

Fintan Walsh is Research Fellow in Drama at the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College Dublin.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter

24 March - 10 April, 2010

Produced by AC Productions
In Smock Alley Theatre

Directed by Peter Reid

Lighting design: Sinead Ronan

Set design: Ian Lacey

With: Terence Orr, Anne Brogan, Nick Devlin, Aine Lane, Vincent Fegan and Paul Kealyn