Michael Portillo - Kept in the dark

Theatre - Pinter made art from dross long before Tracey Emin, writes Michael Portillo

The Birth

You don't expect menace at the seaside. A curtain depicting two huge deckchairs in cheerful stripes rises to reveal the dining room-cum-lounge of a coastal boarding house. It is dowdy but friendly, and the proprietors are idiotic, but certainly not intimidating. Just as Alfred Hitchcock chose the tranquillity of a rural bus stop for the terrifying scene in which Cary Grant is hunted by a crop-spraying plane in North by Northwest, so Harold Pinter accentuated the terror in The Birthday Party by setting his play in a house that is humdrum and at peace.

The threat is presented by two gentlemen, Goldberg and McCann, who choose to stay. They look far too good for the place, dressed in their suits and carrying smart suitcases. Goldberg has charm, of a formulaic kind at least. "What a lovely flight of stairs," he purrs to Meg, the landlady.

The men were in town the previous night, asking directions to the boarding house, yet they do not arrive until the morning. No one ever stays here except for Stanley, a nervy former musician who, in his heyday, once gave a concert in Lower Edmonton. The newcomers reveal that they have malign intentions when privately they discuss "doing a job". But it isn't burglary or armed robbery that they have in mind. It is something to do with Stanley.

Now approaching its half-centenary, this was Pinter's first full-length play. Contemporary critical reactions were generally unfavourable, yet the play made its mark on British theatre. It was an experimental drama that played disconcerting games with language. Most of the dialogue is composed of things that are not worth saying. The characters have fallen into linguistic routines, and speak to fill a void rather than to communicate. Meg always wants reassurance that things are nice - the weather, the cornflakes, the contents of the newspaper. Goldberg is a master of cliche: "Never a day's illness", "Work hard, play hard", and so on.

Here, Pinter made art from dross long before Tracey Emin. The impact of words in the play derives not from their intrinsic meaning, but from the context and the patterns in which they are used. "Succulent" becomes a dirty word because Meg, in her sexual frustration, wants it to be. The first names of McCann and Goldberg change repeatedly.

This revival, directed by Lindsay Posner, makes The Birthday Party no easier to fathom than at its premiere. Goldberg and McCann have evidently come to retrieve Stanley after he has absconded or deserted some organisation. McCann talks a great deal about Fenianism, but Goldberg is an English Jew (he reminisces about rollmop herrings and gefilte fish), and it is inconceivable that these men are members of the same political organisation.

The terror for the audience - maybe for Stanley, too - is that we do not know what he is accused of, and the questions he is asked are unanswerable: "Is the number 846 possible or necessary?" Even as the play moves towards the surreal, it remains rooted in the banal. "Why did the chicken cross the road?" scream Goldberg and McCann in the disturbing interrogation scene. Explicit physical threats might be less frightening, because at least we could make sense of them.

The performances are excellent. Eileen Atkins is wonderfully repellent as Meg, lasciviously fluttering around the room trying to attract the morose Stanley. She remains breezily unaware of anything sinister occurring in her house as the hoodlums reduce her lodger to catatonia and cart him off. Paul Ritter is still more unattractive as Stanley, appearing unkempt and half-dressed in pyjamas. He is graceless and foul-mouthed, yet an object of lust for both Meg and the more attractive, yet no less desperate, Lulu (played by Sinead Matthews).

Henry Goodman, who is almost typecast as Goldberg, blends the character's polish and malevolence in a well-judged interpretation. His seduction of Lulu is as formulaic as his flattery of Meg's house. Lulu's protestations that he has used her and subjected her to depravity seem like another linguistic routine. McCann (Finbar Lynch) is an alarming sight with mutton-chop sideburns. You sense a mental instability barely kept in check by Goldberg.

Posner's dynamic production reaches its climax during the macabre birthday-party scene. A thorough blackout leaves the audience completely confused, adding powerfully to our sense of unease and disorientation. The designer Peter McKintosh provides an excellent set. He forgoes the flying ducks, but none the less reproduces a shabby 1950s guest house with admirable attention to detail.

Seeing The Birthday Party now has the feel of visiting a museum. It is an intriguing exhibit, a piece of Fifties paraphernalia as fascinating as the Skylon or the Sputnik. But with fine acting and high production values, Posner shakes the dust from this relic and offers an entertaining evening.

Booking on 0870 899 3338 until 9 July