The Birthday Party theatre review: Toby Jones and Stephen Mangan lead a wonderfully dark rendition of Pinter's masterpiece

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Pinter’s 1957 masterpiece is given a wonderfully dark revival at his eponymous theatre, where the air is thick with menace and the whiff of existential dread is pumped into the auditorium with the unrestrained gusto of a smoke machine at a school disco.

The brief first half sets the scene for a pulp potboiler, with the reclusive Stanley (Toby Jones) apparently hiding out in a peeling old boarding house on the south coast. His quiet existence is disrupted by the arrival of two men, one a charismatic but intimidating east end Jew, the other a silent, defrocked Irishman, both of whom, it’s strongly implied, have criminal connections and are there to make amends for some undisclosed misdemeanour in Stanley’s past.

The second half promptly unravels into a bizarre fever-dream, the kind of lucid nightmare in which you’re unable to make yourself understood, and where cause is no longer linked to effect. A party is thrown for Stanley, who swears blind his birthday isn’t until next month. When he appears, apropos of nothing, to throttle a beautiful young woman during a power outage, it might be a deranged fantasy, or it could be that he really did it and everybody was too drunk to remember. It’s not just Stanley having a breakdown, either, it’s the audience too. Nothing anyone says can be trusted. Nothing we see can be taken at face value. You start to question everything, craving a resolution that’s never offered. Pinter was fascinated by the subjectivity of experience and the unpredictability of life, with everything destined to crumble into terrifying chaos.

It’s a difficult play, to be sure, one that sets out to confound and frustrate. You could read it a hundred times and come out with a hundred interpretations. It infamously closed after just eight performances when it was staged at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958, with critics baffled and bemused by its lack of narrative arc or satisfying pay-load. Revisionism quickly set in, however, and it’s now considered one of Pinter’s most important plays. One of the first positive reviews likened it to the works of Kafka, only here Stanley isn’t railing against an unknowable system, but life itself, the very state of being.

Director Ian Rickson makes no attempt to explain the play’s many mysteries – who are Goldberg and McCann? Why is Meg terrified of wheelbarrows? – instead revelling in the absurdism. The interrogation scene is particularly brilliant, with Stanley physically and mentally sagging under an impossible stream of questions, ending with him cowering as his tormentors repeatedly yell: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” at him.

Casting the always excellent Jones as Stanley, an actor more than a decade older than Pinter’s description of the character as being in his “late thirties” adds an extra layer of melancholy. Tousled and unshaven, Jones’ evocative, hang-dog expression suggests a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis, his life having fallen far short of his aspiration to be a world-famous pianist. Equally good is Stephen Mangan as Goldberg, his usually affable persona replaced by the snarling, coiled aggression of the guy you don’t want to mess with down the local boozer. Zoe Wanamaker’s Meg, meanwhile, is childlike and fragile, trapped in a sad eternal youth, a glimmer of goodness in a play that tends towards nihilism.

In these times when things aren’t always what they seem, from Russian spin-doctor Vladislav Surkov’s “theatre of politics” to Donald Trump’s “fake news!”, Pinter’s unpicking of objective reality is as vital as ever, and this is a rip-roaring rendition.