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Blackbird Theatre

Pinter's The Birthday Party

Directors Henry Woolf and John Wright Sets and Costumes Marti Wright Lighting Del Surjik Stage Manager Diana Domm

Dates 18 - 27 May 2006   Venue Vancouver East Cultural Centre Reviewer Jane Penistan

photo of Anthony Ingram by Tim Matheson

The Birthday Party, Pinter’s first full-length play, was presented in April 1958, at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, and subsequently moved to the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. There the run was short and surprisingly little interest was shown in the play. This early work has all the traits of what is now designated Pinteresque.

The characters are clearly defined, but all have some undefined, underlying mystery. An atmosphere of menace insidiously invades the apparently monotonous and unremarkable daily lives of an elderly couple and their lodger, growing in intensity to the unresolved climax of the work. The principle of uncertainty pervades. The dialogue is full of mordant humour, irony, and equivocation, with an underlying element of cruelty.

Marti Wright’s seaside boarding-house kitchen/living room is tastelessly wall papered and decorated, furnished with a between-the-wars, cheap, hire-purchase dining-room suite and arm-chair of the worst design. It could not have been done better.

Against this background Petey (Duncan Fraser) and Meg (Lee Van Paassen) live an orderly and undisturbed existence. Petey is employed as a deck chair attendant and goes and comes from work at regular hours. Meg is a kindly if not over intelligent woman. Like many housewives, she longs for a little excitement in her dull daily life. She makes a great fuss of Stanley (Anthony F. Ingram), the paying guest, whom she treats as if he were a wayward teenage son, rather than a grown man, or she flirts with him.

Stanley is an enigmatic character, ungracious and whining, professing to be an unemployed pianist. His tale of being successful before being shafted, rings false. He is slovenly and seems never to leave the house. Lulu (Samantha Madely), an attractive and seductive young neighbour, fails to make Stanley less apathetic, despite her efforts.

At Petey’s invitation, two strangers arrive to rent a room, much to Stanley’s horror and discomfort. This unlikely pair are an Irishman, McCann (Michael Ryan), a strong, uncommunicative type, with an uncertain temper. He is completely under the command of his companion and boss, Goldberg. Goldberg is the self-satisfied self-made man of many names, talents, and mercurial temperament, played with assurance, authority, implacability, and charm by William Samples. These two bring uncertainty and fear into the house, which even kindhearted, simple Meg cannot dispel. She invites her new guests to attend the party she is planning for Stanley that evening, to celebrate his birthday. She even has a surprise present for Stanley.

The party is a disaster. Petey has a chess date with his mates and leaves. Stanley is disgruntled and apprehensive. Goldberg takes over as host and organizer of the party with McCann pouring drinks, and Lulu adding a bit of young life to the party. The innocent Meg, decked out in her long unworn ball gown, tries to go back to the years of her youth, is determined to enjoy herself. What follows is horrifying and terrifying. Only Meg, fancying herself the belle of the ball, is oblivious to what transpires. The morning after is chillingly frightening in its revelations and culminating scene.

If the audience finds itself uncertain and confused at the end of the production, Errol Durbach, in his programme notes says that “It is entirely appropriate that we should do so.” As a member of the first night audience I was bewildered, but also full of speechless admiration for this spellbinding presentation.

The direction and the acting here are probably the best that has been seen, or likely to be seen in Vancouver, for a very long time. What a pleasure to see this high standard of performance from all the cast. They and their directors serve their author well.

© 2006 Jane Penistan