25 January 2023
Trying to unpick Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party’ could be a full-time job. A play of contradictions and of absurdity, of the mudane and of menace. A play where it’s difficult to believe anything you hear, but somehow, you become hooked by the writing and sucked into a world where the ordinary and the extraordinary co-exist.
64 years on from the premiere of the play it carries power and fascination in abundance and it is the choice as a first production by the newly formed Exe Ensemble Company. Theatre survives through innovation and I must applaud Exe Ensemble and Exeter Library for their collaboration through the Libraries Unlimited Scheme for offering a stage amongst the bookshelves for the production – what better place to perform the work of a Nobel Laureate for Literature.
Set in a run-down boarding house, Meg and Petey open the play with Pinter’s signature dialogue, reflecting the hum drum lives they lead; the one (long term) resident is unemployed pianist Stanley. Enter two suited men, Goldberg and McCann, who wish to stay and who take a particular interest in Stanley. When Meg announces it is Stanley’s birthday (or is it?) a party is hastily arranged which ends up in chaos and destruction.
Exe Ensemble have built the production with an eye on mental health; a number of the characters have certain issues in this area. Stanley appears to be on the edge and when broken down by Goldberg and McCann he is rendered speechless. Meg is described as being ‘crazy’; Goldberg and McCann both appear to be have what might be described as personality disorders and both go by a variety of names. Stability is not a theme in the play.
Kate-Lynn Hocking’s production is impressive. Simply staged with a representative set, the writing is allowed to shine through via an accomplished cast of actors.
Cathy Towers is wonderfully chirpy and flirty as Meg, the landlady who lives her dull life for the excitement of making breakfast and in treating Stanley as the son she has always wanted. Petey is, possibly, the one character who has a handle on what is going on, but is powerless to do anything and David Rees captures the growing suspicion of the newcomers perfectly; a finely tuned piece of underplaying which is a treat to watch. Sam Morgan imbues Stanley with simmering anger and frustration at his lot – exaggerating his musical achievements; one moment he went on a world tour and the next his pinnacle was a concert in Lower Edmonton – it is a mesmerising performance.
The double act of Goldberg and McCann can be seen as a political force; breaking down the ordinary person into a gibbering wreck, the roles are full of deceit and menace; you just don’t know what they plan to do with Stanley. Emerson Pike and Mark Shorto are first rate; their co-ordinated moves are amusing, but they are opposite ends of the same unstable stick. Pike is the smarmy Goldberg with something of the used car salesman about him; snappy dresser; tie clips and sleeve braces – he is in control and knows it, only snapping later – it is a performance full of power. Shorto is the hawk-like McCann – nervy, suspicious and edgy – he uses his body and height incredibly well creating a wonderful contrast to his partner. You can’t take your eyes off this performance; it is an incredibly accomplished one.
Lydia Vincent also shines in the small role as Lulu, the young acquaintance of Meg and Petey ,who flirts with Goldberg at the party and succumbs to his sexual advances; in the final scene the actor clearly presents the regrets of Lulu following the traumatic events of the party.
As ensemble casts go, this would be hard to beat.
A few small niggles; the transitions between scenes are a little clumsy and frenetic and maybe the use of music or sound effects would help cover them. I wonder if the drum chosen as the present is a little too adult – Stanley refers to it as ‘a boy’s drum’, but the one used was a little more than that and slightly detracts from Meg treating him as her little son. Lighting was, at times, a little patchy, but this is not a standard theatre and allowances are made.
These are minor asides from what is a very good production indeed. Kate-Lynn Hocking has guided the performers perfectly and brought the play to life with a lucidity which is refreshing and the many comic moments are highlighted in stark contrast to those which are uncomfortable.
Hats off to Caleb Chester at Exeter Library for being imaginative and leading this collaboration. For Exe Ensemble this is a mighty fine first production and I truly hope that it is the start of great things for the Company. There is an appetite for great plays out there and the fact that ticket sales have been very brisk is testament to that. If you have not seen a Pinter play before, then you could do far worse than seeing this production. It’s a crackling triumph!
CAST & CREATIVES
STANLEY – SAM MORGAN
MEG – CATHY TOWERS
PETEY – DAVID REES
GOLDBERG – EMERSON PIKE
MCCANN – MARK SHORTO
LULU – LYDIA VINCENT
WRITER – HAROLD PINTER
DIRECTOR – KATE-LYNN HOCKING
LIGHTING & SOUND – CAMRON VINCENT
COSTUME & PROPS – ELAINE WISEMAN
FIGHT DIRECTOR – TRISTAN REYNOLDS
ARTISTIC ASSITANCE – POSY SPAREY
PHOTOGRAPHY – JIM ELTON
EXETER LIBRARY LEAD – CALEB CHESTER