The Birthday Party review: All talk, low action

Dread that shaped Pinter’s play never materialises in this new production

Early in the script of The Birthday Party, the landlady Meg learns with surprise that there can be what she calls "a show" without singing and dancing, that "a show" can consist of just people talking. Harold Pinter's first full-length play is exactly that. In this presentation, Meg's doubts are justified.

Pinter was setting out his theatrical stall as early as 1958 in a play famously misunderstood by most of the London critics, to whom in this production London Classic Theatre seems to offer an absolution.

Talk can be emollient, talk can be suggestive, talk can be menacing. When two gentlemen arrive at Meg’s seaside boarding house, their conversation is layered with possible meanings, transparent to one another but opaque to everyone else (including the audience).

Director Michael Cabot doesn't do enough to pierce the threatening ambiguity that terrifies Stanley (Gareth Bennett-Ryan), the resident house-guest, possibly on the run from a nasty past (he is still incurably nasty), from which the new visitors emerge like enforcers.


In the re-evaluations since 1958, Pinter's party has been acclaimed as among works by that liberating tribe of Samuel Beckett, Joe Orton and John Osborne. It is also, clearly, the precursor of Pinter's own courageous career, carrying as it does his trademark hints of the grotesque, the pathetic and the comically ignorant.

What can be forgotten is that this play was written in the aftermath of revelation, years in which the knock on the door, the boots on the stairs, could re-awaken the intimate dread of the terror that strikes by night, the accusations to which all doors are open and which end in annihilation.

This is Stanley’s fear, but in this performance it never becomes ours. Pace and purpose are deficient and among the diligent cast it is Cheryl Kennedy’s Meg, cherishing her “listed” boarding house as if it belonged to the National Trust, who captures something of Pinter’s intent and just keeps talking. Until May 21st, then on tour

Mary Leland

Mary Leland is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture