A birthday party is a conformist event. Often the ‘birthday boy’ wishes they were somewhere else. They have told everyone they played the piano, and yet their present is a drum. It is sinister enough if it is not your birthday. Bring in your party guests who perform to the regular beat of booze and ‘Blind Man’s bluff’. The expectation of celebration. The menace of a good time.
To track back from the party. Stanley Webber is the non-conformist, hidden away in a boarding house, constantly being told he is a liar (because he is). Caught, yet cocooned from the wider world in a routine of his own making. Meg, Petey Boles and Lulu are the masses. Petey uses his daily breakfast routine, chess nights and daily grind down at the beach to blinker himself from the world around him. Lulu likes to dip her toe into the water. Be a bit daring. Yet she quickly scurries back to the warmth of her routine when she has one too many of everything at the party.
Meg is anything but the ‘belle of the ball’. She keeps Stanley in her ‘listed’ Boarding House because she is attracted to the idea of non-conformity. Yet when the conformists Goldberg and McCann arrive, she joins in the party. It is easy for Goldberg and McCann to control her. To give her the attention she has always craved. Her moral vacuum is laid bare. She is implicitly aware of Stanley’s fate. It is brutal that Meg runs out of Cornflakes. Least said soonest mended. ‘Belle of the ball’ indeed.
So, it is all set. Goldberg and McCann are sent to remove one more washed up creative from society as Stanley provides no useful value. This is even though the society they represent is rotten to the core. They do it in the darkest way – through celebration. The masses in part, or whole, know what is going on but turn a blind eye or remove themselves from the situation. They lack the moral backbone and rather like the norm really, however much they toy at the fringes. The only shred of decency lies with the most affable character, Petey, who makes a far too late ‘quiet man’ attempt to prevent the inevitable. The victory of society. Brave, yet futile, as there is always room in the car for him.
LDMS are living and breathing their desire to challenge their audience and themselves. This excellent production, directed by Phil Rainforth, continues to set a high bar. The cohesion of direction, set design, construction, lights, wardrobe frame the action. The boarding house is realized here with all its dingy hopelessness and seaside ‘charm’. The supporting house staff remain wonderful.
Sarah Short (Meg Boles) gets all the beats right. She is extraordinary in being quietly awful, selfish and childish. The immoral epitome of turning a blind eye. Peter Dawson (Petey) plays on his characters affability. This makes his intervention at the end even more powerful and poignant. Hannah Marks (Lulu) moral outrage at being used by Goldberg (by society) is well played out. Her outrage is desperate. Lulu has given Goldberg power over her, so her stand is meaningless. She scurries back to her normal life and no doubt wipes everything from her mind. Steve Davis (Stanley Webber) made the right choice in not making Stanley sympathetic. It is not that Stanley is any better than Goldberg or McCann. Just different. The descent from humanity to inhumanity is genuine.
Mike Watson was born to play Goldberg. The crude, bullying monster of society. He will always win out. Suave in the knowledge that he will. He is supported by Vic Milne (McCann) who is great in his world-weariness to get the ‘Stanley job’ done.
I loved this. The Birthday Party runs until 29 October 2022 at the Vernon Theatre. It is a dark, funny, clever production. It should be seen – it is important that it is seen. Whether or not there is a wheelbarrow in the back of the car for Stanley remains to be seen. Perhaps we will never know.