Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
Opened 12 February, 2002

Soutra Gilmour's stage design turns the three-sides thrust of the stage of Sheffield's Crucible into a theatre in the round by putting a fourth bank of seats at the rear. The flats and doors are very obviously pieces of stage set which lead nowhere in particular, and are lit by footlights and free-standing floodlights. (The plaster seagulls hanging from the auditorium ceiling, though, might be pushing things a little.) We are in no doubt that this is an artificial, unnatural, pretend environment.

It's perhaps a mark of how far mainstream theatre has come in the 44 years since Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party was first famously savaged in the West End that we can read Gilmour's design as implicitly saying, what's going on here is theatre: it doesn't have to be neat or linear. After all, its untidy obliqueness was precisely what made the piece stand out on its première from other plays of the period. Erica Whyman's production is grounded on this paradox that the play is both unreal and plausible at the same time. Its banalities, circularities and puzzles are presented quite baldly as contrivances of the playwright, and yet we know that these are the stuff of everyday life: for all its seeming strangeness, the boarding-house run by Petey and Meg was inspired by theatrical digs in which the young actor Pinter stayed in Eastbourne.

The individual performances of Whyman's cast, too, are deliberately just those few degrees out of alignment, enough to draw attention to themselves but not to turn them into caricature or obvious shamming. Anna Calder-Marshall's Meg is a creature of friendly, fluffy dimness, John Lloyd Fillingham's lodger Stanley a collection of disjointed pieces of a personality. When a strange, unspecifically threatening duo arrive for Stanley (for purposes, of course, unexplained), one can spot Robert East's Goldberg turning his various moods on and off consciously, and Robert Patterson as McCann moves his body and face with a slightly exaggerated precision, as if he had been trained to behave like a person and still had to work at it.

Goldberg and McCann enter from the otherwise empty rear seats in which they have been watching the proceedings hitherto; at the end of the final act, they are seen leading the shattered Stanley out the same way. The menace (that obligatory Pinterian adjective) of the central second-act party itself is likewise never fully focused, probably the single significant failing of Whyman's approach in an otherwise admirable production; it is right that we never see the shapes which cast their shadows across the events onstage, but at this crucial point the shadows themselves also lack some necessary definition.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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