Pinter parties on
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)
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