Theatre Review: The Birthday Party, Musgrove Studio

By Janet McAllister

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Actors Darien Takle (left) and Kevin Wilson, with director Raymond Hawthorne. Photo / Natalie Slade
Actors Darien Takle (left) and Kevin Wilson, with director Raymond Hawthorne. Photo / Natalie Slade

At first glance, the John Parker set for this excellent (potent pause) production looks merely 1950s realist. However - fittingly for a Harold Pinter play - not all is as it seems: the lamps suspended over the action are shaped like hand grenades. What we call "conventional" is shown to lead to dangerous, humorous and strange places.

An older, "simple" couple host a younger, sneering boarder (Joseph Rye) - surrogate son, object of desire or both? - who seems extremely worried when two mysterious strangers ride into town.

The Birthday Party can be variously read as a comic cautionary fable of post-war lobotomy culture; a dreamlike dissection of suburban paranoia, delusion and depression; an unravelling of outsiders clinging to norms; a post-Freudian observation of the topsy-turvy power dynamics of sexual and social relationships ... the list goes on.

Pinter doesn't pay cause-and-effect all the respect they're used to, nor does he close down options by tying up loose ends.

Instead he leaves them lying around for us to pick up; a satisfyingly rich haul.

The darkly funny surrealism is all the more striking because it's played out in front of a portrait of the Queen; Pinter is Beckett in a drawing room.

Pinter's language and clever nuances are well served by a first-rate cast - including Michael Lawrence, Darien Takle and Fern Sutherland - and accomplished direction from Raymond Hawthorne, who first directed the play 50 years ago.

While still very enjoyable if one is sitting back for the ride, the play rewards close attention.

As in a film noir, the major action is haunted by the smallest details in the first scene; what would have happened if the chitchat at the breakfast table had been about a different tabloid article?

It's possibly the shortest three hours I've spent at a theatre.

Refreshing for those who like their brains tickled and teased, Pinter shows how scripted pieces can do this as well as devised theatre.

A succulent steal at $30.

The Birthday Party is on at the Musgrove Studio, Maidment Theatre, until March 31.

- NZ Herald

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