Pin­ter par­ties on

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THE BIRTH­DAY PARTY

Lyric Ham­mer­smith, Lon­don W6

THIS MON­DAY it will be 50 years to the day since Harold Pin­ter’s play re­ceived its pre­miere at the Ham­mer­smith Lyric. It did not go down well. The Manch­ester Guardian de­scribed Pin­ter’s di­a­logue as “half-gib­ber­ish and lu­natic rav­ings”; the Evening Stan­dard’s Mil­ton Shul­man con­cluded that, al­though the plot and iden­tity of his char­ac­ters may be clear to Pin­ter, “he has cer­tainly not di­vulged them to me.” The only pos­i­tive re­view came from Harold Hob­son in The Sun­day Times. “The most orig­i­nal, dis­turb­ing and ar­rest­ing tal­ent in the­atri­cal Lon­don,” he wrote.

David Farr’s solid pro­duc­tion is a fit­ting trib­ute to both play and play­wright. Fit­ting, that is, in the sense that all the el­e­ments are present and cor­rect. Jon Bau­sor’s evoca­tive set of a sea­side board­ing house is al­most grubby enough to serve Pin­ter’s later clas­sic The Care­taker. As the loner ten­ant, Stan­ley, Justin Salinger has the vic­timised air of a hang­dog Tony Han­cock. And the hi­lar­i­ously mun­dane ex­changes be­tween land­lady Meg (Sheila Han­cock) and her deckchair-at­ten­dant hus­band Petey (Alan Wil­liams) prime the play for its sud­den veer from the comic to the sin­is­ter when the prey­ing duo Gold­berg (Ni­cholas Wood­e­son) and McCann (Lloyd Hutchin­son) ar­rive on the scene.

Wood­e­son’s squat East End hard­man — think of a Jewish Bob Hoskins — stalks and, dur­ing Stan­ley’s epony­mous party, skips men­ac­ingly across the stage. And af­ter 50 years the play’s most mov­ing mo­ment re­mains undi­min­ished — when Gold­berg and McCann are chal­lenged by the pas­sive Petey who emerges as a fig­ure of English de­cency.

Yet all this merely con­firms what we al­ready know about this mys­te­ri­ous work. As Pin­ter re­cently said, a story about two strangers who take a man away and de­stroy him, hap­pens ev­ery day. It is as rel­e­vant now as it ever was. But this an­niver­sary was a chance to re-imag­ine the piece be­yond its pe­riod set­ting. The avant-garde di­rec­tor Katie Mitchell has done as much with both mod­ern and an­cient clas­sics. Fifty years af­ter its de­but, it would have been more in­ter­est­ing to see Pin­ter’s play get sim­i­lar treat­ment. ( Tel: 0871 22 117 29)

HENRYVI PARTS I, II, AND III RICHARD III

Round­house, Lon­don NW1

“I WANT to get the com­plete set of stick­ers,” said the man queu­ing for a pint of lager in the Round­house’s foyer. You get no sticker for each of Shake­speare’s eight his­tory plays, but he makes the point well. This rare RSC eight-play cy­cle, which starts with Jonathan Slinger’s camp-as-Christ­mas Richard II and ends with his chill­ingly psy­chotic Richard III, leaves you with a hugely sat­is­fy­ing sense of com­ple­tion.

There are mo­ments when the stamina flags. But not for long. Michael Boyd’s pro­duc­tions are full of in­ven­tion and grav­ity-de­fy­ing mo­ments. His achieve­ment is in pro­duc­ing Shake­speare for both purists and a gen­er­a­tion hun­gry for spec­ta­cle. The sub­tlety of the ear­lier Henry IV plays is con­spic­u­ous by its ab­sence in the Henry VI tril­ogy. The nar­ra­tive is driven al­most en­tirely by war. It is Keith Bartlett’s one-eyed Tal­bot, a bat­tle-hard­ened dog of war, ver­sus Katy Stephens’s scary Joan. In the tril­ogy’s bru­tal nine hours, Chuk Iwuji’s gen­tle Henry VI rep­re­sents a rare ab­sence of mal­ice — a wide-eyed ado­les­cent who is ap­palled at the war­fare be­tween the English houses of Lan­caster and York; be­tween Ge­of­frey Fresh­wa­ter’s Bishop of Winch­ester — a coro­nary wait­ing to hap­pen — and Richard Cordery’s rag­ing Glouces­ter; and be­tween Ni­cholas As­bury’s Som­er­set and Clive Wood’s Richard Plan­ta­genet, whose rise leads to his crip­pled son Richard — a one-man killing ma­chine — mur­der­ing his way to the throne. In the coro­na­tion scene, the pro­ces­sion in­cludes, to his de­light, the ghosts of all those he slaugh­tered. And I will never for­get Slinger’s Richard hold­ing his baby nephew and in a coochy-coo voice warn­ing the in­fant of the harm he in­tends. Notch up the com­plete set while you can. ( Tel: 0844 482 8008)

BEAU JEST

Hack­ney Em­pire, Lon­don E8

JAMES SHER­MAN’S Jewish rom-com is thank­fully a lot fun­nier than its naff pun­ning ti­tle. It is set in a Chicago apart­ment in the ’80s, where Sarah Gold­man (Lara Pul­ver) hosts din­ners, in­clud­ing a Seder, for her over­bear­ing par­ents Miriam and Abe (Sue Kelvin and Jack Chissick). She has told them, and her psy­chol­o­gist brother Joel (Alexan­der Giles), that she has ditched Chris­tian Chris (Alex Hardy) for a boyfriend called Dr David Stein­berg. Trou­ble is, David does not ex­ist and Chris is still in her life. So she hires ac­tor Bob (Adam Rayner) from an es­cort agency to pre­tend to be her Jewish boyfriend. Trou­ble is, Bob also turns out to be a gen­tile.

You do not need to be Jewish to un­der­stand how chil­dren are pres­surised into mar­ry­ing the boy or girl of their par­ents’ dreams. But Jews will laugh loud­est at the fun­ni­est lines.

“What are you, Sephardi?” asks Kelvin’s in­tim­i­dat­ing mother.

“No”, says the floun­der­ing Bob, “I’m Jewish.” “I know what you mean,” she says, with a wave of her hand.

There are also some beau­ti­fully ob­served mo­ments in the Seder scene, with Chissick’s Abe flick­ing through the Ha­gadah at light-speed, cap­tur­ing the fond ir­rev­er­ence of many a Passover ser­vice. But keep­ing the ’80s set­ting does noth­ing for this play. I gather Sher­man in­sisted on no changes, which has need­lessly shack­led Susie McKenna’s well-per­formed pro­duc­tion with a near­fa­tal dat­ed­ness. Still, Rayner’s per­for­mance as the non-Jewish Bob is (para­dox­i­cally) pure Se­in­feld, and worth the price of a ticket alone. ( Tel: 020 8985 2424)

Sheila Han­cock and Justin Salinger in The Birth­day Party, 50 years on from the play’s first per­for­mance

Lara Pul­ver in Beau Jest

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