Friday, October 20, 2006

Stage Presence #6

“The Birthday Party” by Harold Pinter
Bristol Old Vic, 14/10/2006

Determined to avoid our usual last minute arrival at the theatre, we travelled by car and arrived in plenty of time. After stopping at the lovingly restored Victorian surround of Queen Square, I then wasted much of the gained time by fruitlessly plugging coins into three parking meters before finding a fourth that swallowed my money and gave me the desired ticket. Still, things were looking up as we entered the Old Vic and managed to not only order drinks for the interval but also get a pre-show sup. We were sitting in the largely empty upstairs ‘courtyard’ when, after a few minutes, a couple of men sat at the next table. Their small (but loud) talk focused on whether or not either had a girlfriend, suggesting that they really didn’t know each other that well. However, the unavoidable feature of the pair was that the elder of the two had chronic hiccups. Belcher (as I’ll affectionately refer to him) seemed incapable of completing a sentence without an inappropriately placed vocal semi-colon. “I hope he’s not sitting near us,” wished my beloved. We had tickets for the upper circle; we usually try out different areas and vantage points in the theatre, albeit generally in the stalls or the dress circle. This was our first time in the balcony area, though I had memories of being stuck behind a column in ‘The Gods’ during school visits, meaning that my view was usually restricted to one half of the stage. On this occasion, a steep descent took us to our seats in the front row, which seemed to overlook the fact that people predominantly possess knees , or indeed legs. As the remainder of the audience noisily filed in, my love looked over her shoulder and gasped. A party of five were descending the stairs: two were clearly ‘in charge’, adopting the roles of carer; Belcher was numbered amongst the remaining three. We watched agog as the two carers assisted an aged man, replete with beer bottle glasses, pirate’s eye patch and walking sticks, take precarious step by precarious step. Silently praying that at some point the group would stop and filter into a row of seating, they eventually did, in the row directly behind us. Although we’d stopped staring at this point (I don’t think I was squeezing my eyes shut yet), we could easily pinpoint the group’s location at all times, thanks to Belcher’s spasmodic exclamations. There was a temporary grace period as the group settled into their seats, until their sole female member decided to swap seats with Belcher. Clambering into the front row, there was a heart-stoppingly interminable moment when the woman, legs akimbo as she straddled the row of chairs, lurched sickeningly over the balcony. A collective shudder anticipated the woman’s inevitable plunge into the lap of a patron in the stalls, but she surprised us all by regaining her balance and hopping back into the newly-vacated seat behind. In their final pre-show act, the group gave me the dubious pleasure of taking their photo – a last request before they all met an untimely but ultimately clumsy death? – before settling down as the lights dimmed and the play began. I have to be honest: don’t know much about Pinter, beyond an alleged predilection for dramatic pregnant pauses. Not so with The Birthday Party, for Belcher was able to fill each deliberate silence with a wretched outcry. Not that he was alone: the South West branch of The Haemorrhoid Sufferers’ Association seemed to be well represented, judging by the loops of squeaking chairs throughout. In fact, the only thing missing from this veritable frogs’ chorus of croaking and creaking was Sir Paul McCartney. About an hour into the first half, Belcher finally had the decency to leave, though by this time the potential nuances of Pinter’s writing had completely passed me by. After a much needed interval whiskey and hurriedly smoked cigarette, we saw that Belcher had rejoined the party for the final act. Amazingly, the hiccups had not abated and, after about ten minutes of rhythmic yelping, we overheard a female voice in crisp RP, tersely admonish, “This is not acceptable!” One of the carers retorted, “It’s an involuntary reaction – chill out, man!” to which (I was surprised to see) he didn’t receive an involuntary punch on the nose in response. I wanted to laugh out loud but I don’t think Pinter was playing for gags at that point. Belcher eventually departed again, though someone stepped up to the plate and delivered a couple of loud burps from roughly the same seating area. My money’s on one of the carers, driven to an impromptu act of defiance. So, what can I tell you about The Birthday Party? Well, it largely reminded me of a BBC TV “Play For Today” from the 1970s, with austere, low-budget sets and overly earnest performances from the cast. But then, I’m probably not the best judge of this. After all, The Guardian loved the play and that was without the added bonus of belches.

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