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Droll yet terrifying: Stephen Mangan, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Toby Jones in “The Birthday Party” (©JOHAN PERSSON)

When Harold Pinter wrote The Birthday Party,  John Osborne's Look Back in Anger had just sprung at the throats of the theatre-going public, belting home its message of class tension and social conflict through the brutal invective of Jimmy Porter.  The Birthday Party, with its themes of shifting identity and multiple unreliable narrators, bemused audiences and underwhelmed most of the critics. “Sorry Mr Pinter,” sniffed Milton Shulman in the Evening Standard, “you’re just not funny enough.” The Guardian bemoaned “gibberish and non-sequiturs” and the Lord Chancellor, amateur critic as well as keen censor, slammed it as “insane and pointless”, with “a fashionable flavouring of blasphemy”. The offending line was: “Thy Kingston come, thy Wimbledon”, which hardly sounds like sacrilege on a grand scale.

But a handful of alert observers relished the uncomfortable sojourn in a crumbling boarding house on the South Coast. It would help Pinter’s fame as a writer who could combine a talent for absurdity culled from Kafka and Bruno Schulz with an ear for the more commonplace oddities of everyday speech and the grim predictabilities of English life at the margins — fried bread, trips to Boots, deckchairs and Fuller’s beer.

Ian Rickson’s production at the Harold Pinter Theatre, which runs until April 14, makes the most of the inspissated gloom. In the boarding house run (loosely) by dotty Meg (Zoe Wanamaker), with sulky Stanley (Toby Jones) as her aimless house-guest, Jones is majestically horrible in the early scenes — a tinpot recluse, whose foreshortened features and cockiness hint at an insecurity that will be exposed, as two mysterious visitors descend like a Nemesis with East End accents.

Pinter originally denied that the cryptic drama was political — probably an attempt to delineate himself among the Angry Young Men — and his influences here owe more to European theatre of the absurd than realism.

Yet it is hard-wired in the 1950s, not least in pre-empting The Organisation Man, William Whyte’s influential manual of workplace hierarchies and their psychological impact.

Pinter’s dislike of organisations, criminal, corporate or religious, shone through.  Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) are thugs, in the service of a mysterious cause which Stanley has either betrayed or absconded from in the “nosiness which brought me here”.

Inexplicable actions and grievances add up to a menacing totality. The essence of Pinter done well is that it makes us edgy without quite knowing why, and this production adeptly secures that feeling of dread, interlaced with a painful comedy of manners.
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