From the moment you walk into there is an air of excitement about what is to come with Hill College Theatre Company’s production of The Birthday Party. The set is tastefully dressed and the eclectic set of props and furniture, particularly the vase of dead flowers, manage to capture the musty, unkempt essence of the boarding house setting within the grandeur of the room. The production aspects were all well executed. Sound and lighting, although simple, were without error and never felt out of place. The directorial decision to have a ticking clock sound from the moment the audience entered to the room was a particularly good one. Although sceptical at first, I found that this took nothing away from the dialogue and added hugely to the pauses and awkwardness that are so characteristic of Pinter’s work. My only question, and not necessarily a critical one, of the direction would be the decision not to include any bows. Although I understand the reasoning behind this in not breaking the awkwardness and emotion felt throughout the piece, which was successful, it left many of the audience confused, myself included, instead of thinking more about what they’d just seen.
Luke Titmuss gave a very strong performance as Stanley Webber allowing us to truly follow the mental degradation of a fragile man. Titmuss particularly shone in the second and third acts as his character becomes more and more broken. The contrast of explosive anger and careful subtlety – particular the twitching eyes and hands shaking – go far to portray both the human and more animalistic qualities of a character you’re never sure whether to feel sorry for or hate. In the third act Titmuss’ physicality was truly that of a broken man. I did however feel Titmuss hit the beginning of the piece at too high an intensity, and had parts of the first act been played more calmly it would have added even more impetus to the chaos of the later acts and allowed him to show a slightly greater range of emotion as a pose to coming off as a little one sided in terms of intensity in act one. Another particularly fantastic performance was that of Jake Goldman as Goldberg. From the off, Goldman’s performance had the sickly sweet feel of an excellent film villain. There was a palpable sinister nature behind the slick and seemingly endearing exterior of his performance. Goldman brought a marvellous variation of voice and expression to a part that could easily become very one sided. He easily commanded the stage whether he was making the audience laugh or flinch and was a joy to watch throughout. His chemistry with George Troop as McCann, the second of the two strange guests, created a truly dynamic onstage duo that worked almost seamlessly together. Troop was also strong throughout, with an impressive and occasionally scary range of expression and a generally very well maintained Irish accent. He is another multi-faceted and believable antagonist. The two, along with Titmuss, shone completely in the two interrogation scenes. Goldman at one point speaks the line ‘how often do you come across real, true warmth?’, and the answer here lies within Elle Morgan-Williams performance as the ditsy yet kind hearted landlady Meg. Morgan-Williams is naturally funny and provides a very welcome comic relief to some dark, and at times genuinely frightening, scenes. With another perfectly maintained accent and the combination of her bumbling nature and striking ignorance, you can’t help but enjoy the one solely light hearted character in the piece. Particularly in the eponymous birthday party scene Morgan- Williams is in equal parts hilarious and touching in her toast to Stanley. There was a nice chemistry between Meg and her husband Petey, portrayed by Matthew Chalmers. Chalmers had a hard job to portray a character with far less to do than others, and at times came across as perhaps a little too subdued. Nevertheless the performance was believable and generally strong, and you felt the emotion when the opportunity arose in act three. Talor Hanson, although not onstage a huge amount, was fantastic whenever she was. She is, simply put, a joy to watch, and does particularly well to make a whole audience genuinely feel for her seeing as Pinter offers the character of Lulu effectively no character development.
The crowning jewel of the performance was without a doubt the birthday party scene which is the play’s namesake. This particular scene could not have been better executed. The dialogue in the opening stages was snappy – particularly impressive when jumping between separate conversations – and had the audience laughing aloud at numerous points. The section of the scene executed in pitch black was an absolute joy, and genuinely terrifying. To choreograph complicated blocking well enough to execute without fault in complete darkness is incredibly impressive, especially if you take into consideration the cast only first rehearsed in the venue the day before the performance. This scene as a whole was the undoubted climax of an overall fantastic production. The phrase ‘an emotional rollercoaster’ is undoubtedly a cliché, but it completely applies to what HCTC have created with The Birthday Party. The speed with which you go from laughing to feeling genuine fear sums up the range of emotions of a truly exciting performance which will leave you thinking and questioning well after you leave. This is most certainly one not to be missed, so get your tickets whilst you can!