Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Cast make it some party

Birthday Boy Stan, (Richard Woodward), with Meg (Helen Johnson) and Petey (Tony O'Hagan) with his head, as usual, buried in a paper

The Birthday Party

Hall Green Little Theatre


SO we have a dysfunctional boarding house somewhere on the south coast, run by a dysfunctional couple with a single dysfunctional lodger and a visitation by two sinister strangers who are . . . well you know the score.

As a play it gives us four excellent performances with Tony O’Hagan as Petey Boles, husband of Meg who runs the boarding house, a deckchair attendant who seems to live in his own world within a world. A main character who isn’t if you see what I mean.

Then there are the strangers with Roger Warren as Simey, or it could be Benny or then again Nat Goldberg, who knows, he uses all three surnames. He is a self-made . . . we never did find out what, in a sharp suit with a briefcase while Michael Parker is either Declan or Seamus McCann who seems to be the muscle and apparently is an unfrocked priest, or maybe not.

There is a long scene when the pair berate Stanley, more of whom later, with an unconnected barrage of words which is, if nothing else, a severe test of memory, indeed the entire cast came though Pinter’s fractured dialogue with flying colours - not an easy task when not one character manages a conversation a normal person might recognise.

McCann stalked the stage in the brooding menacing way of a thug, with violence seemingly always a wrong word away while Goldberg has a more friendly approach to violence, a man used to being in control, used to ordering people about and still seeing himself as a ladies’ man as we see as he chats up Lulu a girls half his age or more.

Stan launches an assault on Lulu (Gemma McCaffrey) under cover of darkness

Lulu, played by Gemma McCaffrey, floats in and out of scenes with no apparent connection to anyone. She seems to have a penchant for older men and may have been seduced by Goldberg, an unlikely pairing, and is then angry that he sees it as a one night stand.

Who she is, or why she is there we never find out.

And that leaves us with two exceptional performances from Richard Woodward and Helen Johnson.

Woodward is Stanley Webber, who used to play the piano for the concert party on the pier and might have been a concert pianist – at least he played a concert once . . . we think, although like everything else you are told in this play it is likely to be contradicted in the next sentence. Truth it seems is relative.

He is the sole lodger, a resident rather than a guest, who seems to get up late, and do nothing much apart from sitting around staring into space – and attempting first to strangle his landlady when the lights go out at his birthday party and then   to launch a sexual assault on Lulu when the lights go out again – it was some  party.

His main pleasure seems to be being nasty to Meg, his landlady and a glorious performance by Johnson.

Meg appears to be a couple of bob short of a shilling, a bit simple as we used to say before political correctness took hold. She fusses about husband and Stan with her simple breakfast almost a religion, with serving corn flakes almost the highlight of her day, there is also a hint that she once did and might still hold out the promise of a little bit extra room service for guests if requested.

She lives in her own sweet world and Johnson has Meg’s attempt at coyness down to a tee in her bizarre party dress at a party where she firmly believes she was the belle of the ball.

To her it was a wonderful, glittering party, a social highlight – neatly forgetting she was half strangled and Lulu almost raped.

The party comes about when Meg mentions to Goldberg and McCann that it is Stan’s birthday. How she knows we never find out and whether it really was is also in doubt as Stan denies it claiming his birthday is next month.

No matter, Goldberg organises a party with four bottles of Scotch and a bottle of Jamesons for drinks, which for five people is some going.

Ending as we began. Meg fussing over breakfast and Petey lost in his paper

We discover Goldberg and McCann know Stan or at least something about him but what we never know and the party sees Stan have a complete breakdown to be lead away the next morning by Goldberg to see Monty – whoever he is.

It is no real surprise really, as it has been obvious since their first appearance that they have come to collect Stan; the only mystery is why and what for. A question never answered as an innocent situation descends into menace.

Harold Pinter’s play had a most unfavourable reaction, bordering on open hostility when it first opened in London but has since become regarded as a modern classic.

I know Pinter, along with the likes of his friend Samuel Beckett  and John Osborne, is an immensely influential playwright and I know it is seen as heresy to say so but to be honest I am not a Pinter fan, he is a sort of N F Simpson without the laughs, and I must admit I prefer plays where I can find some empathy with the characters, or at least like or dislike them, and call me old fashioned, but I do like a plot that makes some sort of sense, even very silly sense.

This is a play where the only certainty in the plot is its ambiguity. It is not even a matter of nothing being what it seems - we are never quite sure what it seemed in the first place.

Even the foundations of the storyline are built on shifting sand from Goldberg’s collection of first names to the mysterious connection between him and Webber – another Jewish name. Is that the connection? Who knows.

Director Roger Warren has done a fine job in assembling an excellent cast and then developing a well-paced rhythm, in a play which is not the easiest to follow for either cast or audience, a full house in this case. The result was a fine homage to a modern classic.

Roger Clarke

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