Happy Birthday, Birthday Party. The 50th anniversary of Harold Pinter's breakthrough play is on for a short run at the Lyric Hammersmith, in a new production by David Farr that has some spine-chilling moments. There's a subtle moment when the comedy of the opening scene (a bit reminiscent of 1950s radio series like The Glums or Hancock's Half Hour) turns nasty and sets the tone for the rest of the play. It's when the thuggish Irishman McCann, one of two mysterious interlopers in the seedy seaside boardinghouse, deliberately snaps Stanley's glasses. In this production it drew an audible gasp from the audience. Sadism and torture don't have to be expressed with blood. It's enough to blindfold somebody and deliberately make him put his foot through the child's drum he has just been given as a birthday present. Sheila Hancock's Meg the landlady is a sentimental horror who seems to see and understand very little of what is going on, while Petey her husband understands only too well. Stanley the lodger (Justin Salinger) is clearly disturbed, but alert enough to understand the threat posed to him by Goldberg and McCann. That makes his catatonic appearance in Act Three all the more effective. What have these men done to him? The performance I most enjoyed was that of Nicholas Woodeson as Goldberg, dancing and hopping around the stage during the blind man's buff game, by turns violent and sentimental during his reminiscences about the 'golden days' of his Jewish childhood. What is remarkable about Pinter's early plays is the sharpness of his ear for dialogue, a quality he shares with Noel Coward, who also spent his formative years listening hard to how people really talk. Coward climbed his way socially into the fashionable classes, writing down their little bon mots about sex and shrimping nets before he went to sleep in the guest bedroom of whatever country house he was visiting. Pinter spent his early life in what must at the time have seemed rather unproductive fashion listening to people on London buses and in cafes. Goldberg's Jewish cliches are the product of his Hackney childhood and McCann's Oirishisms the fruit of his time as a touring actor with Anew McMaster's company in Ireland. All that's obvious enough, but though the lines are hilarious, it's the play's other qualities that mark Pinter out as special. Once Coward and Pinter became famous and mingled less with people they didn't know, I think they lost that ability to listen and their writing started to fall away.
All of us who enjoy the theatre like to think that we would have been perceptive enough, like Harold Hobson, to spot Pinter's talent if we had seen the play on its first outing half a century ago. I was nine in 1958 and my only outings to the theatre had been to a couple of pantomimes at the King's Theatre Southsea. So I don't think The Birthday Party would have meant much to me. Now it's pretty mainstream stuff because so many of Pinter's themes have been imitated and repeated by others. But nobody's managed to do it quite as well as the man himself. The play comes up sounding as if it was freshly written yesterday, and no doubt it will sound that way in another fifty years, when we're all pushing up the daisies.