The Birthday Party

JEFF CARPENTER [pause] enjoyed [pause] this [pause] play.

Corpus Playroom ellie nunn phil howe pinter

Corpus Playroom, 2-6th November, 7.30pm. £6/£5.

Directed by Phil Howe


The Birthday Party had its world premiere at the Arts Theatre in 1958, so it is fitting that Phil Howe chose to begin his Cambridge directing career with it next door, half a century later. For a directorial debut this was an outstanding production, featuring some outstanding freshers.

Corpus Playroom is a difficult venue to get right and the abrasive, nauseous style of Pinter could easily have resulted in a long, bad joke.  Instead, it brought the inherent voyeurism right into the fold and played the tragicomedy perfectly.  The eruption of applause at the end of the ninety minutes from the packed house said it all.

The first scene was absolutely to-the-nose perfectly styled and my favourite part of the play.  The absurdity of the mindless Meg and bizarrely calm Petey was carried off with carefully poised humour and contrast of character. Nervous, sporadic laughter from the audience became stronger as the stupid conversation about cornflakes built up.  Charlotte Hamblin’s Cambridge debut as Meg was both funny and intelligent, her ditziness never representational but clearly woven into a sincere character, with still a hint of the bizarre that the script requires; a remarkable feat.

Stanley was played by Ellie Nunn (another fresher), and thanks to clever direction and keen attention to the script Phil Howe achieved the rare feat of bettering a play through cross-casting. Nunn brought a good level of inner turmoil and anger to her lines, but it was when she stopped speaking that we saw the true depth of her talent. During the interrogation she was the most gripping thing in the scene, and her silent acting through the ‘party’ was both disturbing and heart-rending.

All the actors were of a high standard and, it seems, expertly cast.  Howe had clearly worked hard at making the play visually interesting and expressive, which the script does not make it easy to do.

I would, however, critique the odd opening; a red square of light filled the whole window frame in a blackout, a powerful device but one which was entirely abandoned after ten seconds, never to be seen again.  There were also a few times when I felt the scene reached an emotional plateau and was in danger of stagnation. They soon moved on, though, and in fairness Pinter is not the snappiest of Nobel Laureates.

I was in agreement with an audience who clearly loved the voyeurism and sheer intensity of this production, employing brilliant use of space and hitting Pinter’s style violently on the head.