Written By: Meagen Tajalle
The Birthday Party is structurally peculiar, and when the curtain is drawn at the end of Act I, it feels premature. Meg and Petey Boles, an older couple who occupy a rundown boarding house somewhere outside of London, are introduced along with Stan, played by Toby Jones, the only other resident living with the Boles. The majority of the first act serves to provide an understanding of the world of the story and the relationships between the characters; it also prompts many questions, only some of which are answered by the play’s end.
Playwright Harold Pinter evades narrative conformity and betrays audience expectations so frequently in his sophomore work that they are eventually abandoned altogether, so much so that when the stage lights went out as a part of the climax, leaving only flashlights wielded by the characters to illuminate the horrifying image that earned the moment audible gasps, I expected the play to end without a traditional resolution.
After Pinter leaves the audience questioning the significance of the mundane events of the first act, it isn’t until the interrogation scene in Act II that we think we’ve discovered what the play is really about. When Stephen Mangan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Goldberg and McCann, two gentlemen who come to stay at the Boles’ residence, interrogate Stan, Mangan and Vaughan-Lawlor toss Pinter’s dialogue back and forth with ease, precision, and increasing speed. But quick-witted speech is not alone in the airspace at the playwright’s namesake theatre; anxiety looms as Goldberg and McCann’s questioning intensifies, because this scene sits squarely in the shadow of Act I, which is notably devoid of dramatic action until its conclusion. Meg buys Stan a child’s drum for his birthday, and when he begins to play it, the at-first innocent act quickly turns crazed and violent, exposing a volatility the audience later discovers the depths of. The curtain is drawn, and intermission is filled with a multitude of voices asking the same question: “What do you think this is about?”
After the interrogation scene, the play transitions to the titular scene in a manner deliberately devoid of grace, and the audience feels jipped. The interrogation scene has come and gone without offering any answers, and posing at least as many new questions as Goldberg and McCann asked Stan. The remainder of the play follows suit.
The unpredictable nature of the play is a product of both its circumstances and characters. The life of the first act rests on these characters and the performances of the entire company; they are the reason the audience comes back after intermission. Zoe Wanamaker’s relentless eccentricity in the role of Meg particularly stands out. The Boles’ rundown boarding house where the play takes place, with its peeling wallpaper and old furniture, remains the same from start to finish. In masterfully nuanced performances, the indifference of Wanamaker and Peter Wight as Petey to the material deterioration in the first scene mirrors their resolved detachment in the last scene.