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Mr Monkey sees The Birthday Party at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Mr Monkey looking at the The Birthday Party poster outside the theatre
Venue : Royal Exchange Theatre
Start date: 5th June 2013
End date : 6th July 2013
Visit date : 10th June 2013
Meg (Maggie Steed) discusses breakfast with Stanley (Royal Exchange Theatre production photo)

Mr Monkey ventured into Manchester for the press night of The Birthday Party at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

After checking the poster outside, Mr Monkey scampered in to collect his tickets and await the start of the performance.

The Birthday Party is Harold Pinter's first play, written in 1957 and first performed in 1958. It received mixed reviews on its first tour, but went on to become a modern classic.

Stanley is the sole lodger at Meg's somewhat down-at-heel seaside boarding house. Meg's husband is a deck-chair attendant who spends most of the play out of the house. Stanley is a professional pianist without a piano or a job, and spends his days either in bed or tormenting Meg (and Lulu from next door when she's available).

Everything goes wrong for Stanley when, just after telling him it's his birthday (which he denies), Meg announces the imminent arrival of two extra lodgers. Stanley fears, quite correctly, that the pair are only visiting the seaside to do him harm. The newcomers, Goldberg and McCann, insist on holding a party for Stanley which ends badly for everyone.

At no point is it explained what organisation Goldberg and McCann represent, and what authority they have over Stanley. It's possible to see them as working for some kind of criminal gang with odd interrogation techniques, or as representatives of organised religion, or the Establishment, or almost anything.

The set is a wonderful evocation of a an unsalubrious 1950s dining room, rendered realistically but with some odd features which foster an aura of menace or at least wrongness. The dining table has seven sides, and so does the room. The walls are as high as they can be without totally ruining the view from the banquettes and, coupled with a low ceiling, give a feeling of claustrophobia. The ceiling does rise at the start of each act so that the upper gallery can see the stage.

The party in full swing (Maggie Steed, Ed Gaughan, Keith Dunphy, Danusia Samal and Desmond Barrit) (Royal Exchange Theatre production photo)

The Birthday Party is a play which requires a strong ensemble performance, and this production provides exactly that. All the actors are convincing in their roles, even as different layers of personality are revealed.

Ed Gaughan was repulsively convincing as a seedy and scurrying Stanley, hunched defensively except when he's alone with someone he can dominate.

Maggie Steed gave an excellent performance as Meg, a woman for whom routine is everything. She provides a lot of humour at the start, but the same routines seem almost tragic at the end of the play.

Desmond Barritt and Keith Dunphy played Goldberg and McCann as a threatening double act, Goldberg dominating with aggressive bonhomie while McCann was continually on edge, waiting for the job to start. When they turn on Stanley with a meaningless interrogation, they are terrifying.

Paul McCleary's performance as Petey was a solid and dependable foil for the oddities of Meg and Stanley.

Danusha Samal was good as Lulu, which isn't a particularly rewarding part, though she does have one of the funniest lines in the play.

Mr Monkey was drawn into the play from the very beginning, and remained engrossed throughout, even though he was often not quite sure why things were happening. He doesn't think it makes for an entirely comfortable evening - in fact there were moments in the play which made him feel distinctly uncomfortable - but it is excellent theatre. The Birthday Party provides an excellent evening of uncertainty, repulsion, dread and occasional humour, but the questions of what exactly happened and why stayed with Mr Monkey after he left the theatre.

The Birthday Party runs until 6th July 2013.

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