Everybody loves Pinter, especially students. Pinter wrote extensively for students himself – his first play, The Room, a one-actor, he sent to a friend at Bristol University who had asked for a script for an annual student drama festival. It is no surprise then that seeing The Homecoming, The Caretaker, No-Man’s Land listed can set alarm bells ringing – uh oh, student fare. In my relatively short time at Oxford, I’ve seen a fair few such productions.  They can make Stanley’s trials seem like child’s play.

However, directors Jake Lancaster and Muj Hameed have absolutely hit the nail on the head with this sophisticated production of Pinter’s most popular drama, demonstrating a real understanding of what makes the play so enduringly popular, whilst maturely introducing some directorial quirks that would kindle the interest even of the most miserablist of student theatregoers.

The Birthday Party deals with a paranoiac Stanley Webber (Rory Fazan), an erstwhile piano player lodging in a dilapidated old boarding house in a backwards seaside town, who has his bleak birthday party intruded upon by two sinister strangers representing an undisclosed organisation. They have been looking for him. The result is a string of grim games which leave Stanley questioning his choices in life, as well as his sanity.

The most impressive aspect of this production of Pinter’s second play is its sense of balance – the achievement lies in its paratactic structuring of comedy and menace. On the one hand, the staging draws upon the bleak and claustrophobic 60s-era set design and costumes of the famously grey 1968 film, the performers penned within a cryptic space by tastelessly wallpapered walls, the stage naturalistically cluttered with all the tat you might expect in the living room of your aging loon.

The lighting is experimental and edgy, casting ominous shadows across the stage. At the same time as all of this, Lancaster and Hameed’s production clearly aims to bring out the humour latent in what is an hysterical script, and very much succeeds in doing so. I found myself laughing, and then immediately feeling like a monster for laughing, which says that the director has definitely got something right here.

What makes this production special though is its subtle and arresting surreality. The absurd is foregrounded without reversion to bonkers gimmicks or sickly melodrama. A bespectacled Stanley, when de-spectacled by his aggressors, fumbles around the stage, eyes asquint and arms outstretched. The image, at first cartoonish, becomes sinister as the violence escalates. The more non-naturalistic direction proves very effective during moments like these. Glesni Ann Euro’s particularly caricatural portrayal of dozy old mare Meg, Stanley’s landlady, also somehow manages to move during her moments of quiet triumph.

An effective tactic of the play is a kind of artificial posturing. The actors and actresses tap into a repertoire of repeated facial expressions and recycled gestures, which can be both farcically funny, but also rather unsettling, to watch – depending on context. Will Hatcher, as Goldberg, is particularly adept at switching between roles, for example that of suave womanizer and sadistic inquisitor, whilst using exactly the same vocal and physical tools. It really is fantastic to watch.

The staging eschews naturalism in favour of uncomfortably off-kilter symmetries and movement has the geometric quality of your more hard-line absurdist play. Bottles are placed in matching pairs on either end of a long table, mirroring each other to the inch. McGann (Barney White) and Goldberg, during the scene in which Stanley is verbally roughhoused by the duo, take it in turns, one to stare, the other to patrol the stage in a wide arc, before a changing of the guard sees the other perform the same action in reverse. By the climax of the scene, both are swirling around the table at which a beleaguered Stanley is slumped. This movement and repetition rewards dramatic scenes with a sense of ceremony absolutely appropriate to Stanley’s ritual humiliation.

The acting is of a very high standard. Hatcher particularly seems to absolutely relish in the language he is given – the scene in which Goldberg exaggeratedly accosts Meg with overblown clichés and bogus French becomes absolutely hilarious in part due to Hatcher’s control of his speech. White has McCann gel into the intellectual and interrogative exchanges, whilst maintaining a thuggish blankness of expression that absolutely convinces – yes, this is what a right-hand man looks and sounds like. 

The playwright once remarked on the infamous ‘Pinter pause’ – “Those silences have achieved such significance that they have overwhelmed the bloody plays – which I find a bloody pain in the arse.” Had Pinter had the pleasure to see this production, he would have found little to be so shirty about. Lengthy silences, though exploited to good effect, by no means overwhelm this bloody play; the timing in early scenes is just right. The more frenetic moments, including the famous cod-philosophical interrogation in the second act, offset the mundanity of the phatic earlier scenes. Again, balance is convincingly shown to be the name of the game.  

There is a fair bit that could be worked on. The odd line sounds a bit over-rehearsed. As a result, some of the back and forth is almost a bit too quick during the torture sequence, the frenzy doesn’t build up perhaps as deliberately as it should (perhaps at the offset Stanley could be prodded a bit more for the answers to those dense, increasingly rhetorical questions, rather than just shouted over from the start). Also, I’m not convinced that the key props (being also powerful symbols) in the play – the drum, the glasses, the bottles of alcohol – are manipulated as they could be. However, I’m essentially just nitpicking here – the production was a joy overall.

It is clear that the director, as well as everyone involved, has dedicated a great deal of hard work and energy, not to mention (most importantly) some careful thought, into realising this difficult play. What I have seen shows the potential, should the standard of performance be maintained over the course of the run, to really impress its audiences.