30 June 2009

The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party
Melbourne Theatre Company
24 June 2009
Fairfax Studio, The Arts Centre

Once a creator’s name has become an adjective, it’s difficult to approach their work without falling into a pit of cliché or frustrating audiences by avoiding expectations – but MTCs The Birthday Party successfully avoids being Pinteresque, whilst capturing the essence of this unforgettable work.

Some folk don’t like Pinter. I’m not one of them, but I am wary of approaching new productions. With well known, and over-studied plays (from Shakespeare to Brecht to Miller), it’s rare to see a production that doesn’t try so hard to re-interpret, over analyse or completely re-think the intent and purpose of its writing that it gets lost in it’s own quest for originality.

As this Party has re-located from generic-UK to generic-NSW coast, there is a degree of Australianising and tweaking of Pinter’s script, which includes The Canberra Times (an odd, but quite funny choice for a seaside community to read), wonderful souvenir tea towels, town names changed, the inclusion of an Indigenous language poem and an Australian cast.

There are new layers explored and revealed, but its gift to us is its simplicity. Without obvious over work and comparison, this Birthday Party feels like no one else has done it before. Julian Meyrick’s direction masters a pace and tempo that feels natural, but is always under his precise control, allowing him to create the all-important sense of unease.

The cast show us their characters if they were written just for them. Their on stage relationships are intimate and complex, their world is real and we care about every one of them. Gregory Fryer and Pauline Whyman bring an often missed likeability to Petey and Meg – I could have watched these two talk about breakfast for hours. As Goldberg and McCann, Marshall Napier and Glenn Shea balance humour and mystery with menace and threat, and Jada Albert's (Lulu) is on her way to being one of our best performers. Which leaves Stanley. Isaac Drandic’s performance is good but, compared to the rest of the cast, it felt too “acted” and too controlled. Stanley kept jolting us back to the play and away from the story.

The uniqueness of this production brings a freshness to Pinter’s work, without losing the truth that lies in its confusion. It’s a wonderful introduction to one of the most influential western playwrights of the late twentieth century, a production you dare not miss if you love the work, and one that may even convince detractors to re-think their opinion.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

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