Manchester Theatre Review: The Birthday Party

Julia Coulton

Harold Pinter’s play about a sinister seaside boarding house is running at the Royal Exchange Theatre – but just what is it all about?

It’s great to see a play with no neat conclusions or easy answers; the kind that forces its audience to think. Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre until July, does just that. Set in a drab seaside boarding house, the play centres on long-term resident Stanley Webber, a former concert pianist who can hardly rouse himself each morning for his daily cornflakes, and landlady Meg Boles, who spends much of the play fussing lovingly around Stanley and her husband, Peter. The first act sees Pinter’s keenly observed absurdities of their mundane routines played out with pitch black humour. Laughter soon turns to menace, however, when two men, Goldberg and McCann, turn up out of nowhere to stay. It becomes clear that the strangers know Stanley; for his part, he’s terrified of their sinister presence. A birthday party is held for the petrified Stanley, the like of which has never been seen before.

Towering performances are given from the whole cast. Maggie Steed is brilliant as Meg, Ed Gaughan’s Stanley is a quiet tour de force, and the evil Goldberg and his violent sidekick McCann are captured perfectly by Desmond Barrit and Keith Dunphy. Even the smallest lines are heavy with significance, and Pinter’s trademark pauses ratchet up the tension.

Even the smallest lines are heavy with significance, and Pinter’s trademark pauses ratchet up the tension

Pinter was inspired to write the play after staying in a dirty Eastbourne boarding house recommended to him by a man he’d met in a pub. Not interested in producing a play that would be immediately understandable, and fully aware of the negative audience reaction that could follow, Pinter imbues The Birthday Party with an air of mystery and fascination that enraged contemporary critics but would later make it one of his most popular works. Thankfully, the critics didn’t stop Pinter from allowing the play to lead to its inexorable, awful conclusion. As we were leaving the theatre, a woman asked, “Did you understand it? The acting was fabulous but there are six of us and we’re not sure what we’ve just watched.” If Pinter were around today, we’re sure he would be more than happy with that reaction. Long may his work continue to confuse and astound us.

Culture Guides

Backyard Cinema


It only takes a quick glance at the film listings to realise that Christmas is coming, and quick. We’ve rounded up some of our festive highlights alongside standout seasons and festivals.


Pause in the hustle and bustle of festive prep to take in some inspiration from this month’s top exhibitions.

The Ocean at the End of The Lane at the lowry


It’s the most wonderful time of the year and Manchester is bursting with fun, family activities to keep the kids entertained in the run up to Christmas!

Writer Nicholas Royle. Photo by Zoe McLean


There are spooky stories, Christmas crime thrillers and plenty of books for stocking fillers as December unfolds and Manchester and the wider North region switches on the live literature lights.


The festive season is here, and whether you want to escape it or embrace it, we’ve got you covered.

Theatre in Manchester and the North


Contemporary cabaret, powerful monologues and world premiere musicals. Our theatre guide spans the festive season and beyond.

Classical Music in Manchester and the North

We preview the standout classical music events and venues in Manchester and the north.

Food and Drink

Explore the best restaurants and bars in Manchester and the North for autumn.

Tours and Activities

We’re deep into Autumn now but don’t let that stop you from finding a new tour or activity to get stuck into.

Things to do right now

Powered by culturehosts
T'was the gig before Christmas at Z-arts
4 December 2022 11:00 am, from £9.00

T’was the gig before Christmas at Z-arts

Image credit: Maryna Makarenko, Sun-Eaters, 2022
Cinema Until 4 December 2022, from £5

HOME Artist Film Weekender 2022

Red Squirrel at Lightwaves
Festivals Until 4 December 2022, FREE

Lightwaves at Salford Quays

Cinema Until 8 December 2022, from £7.95

Aftersun at HOME

Elizabeth Gaskell's House garden. Photo by Chris Tucker
Literature Until 11 December 2022, from £4.50

Book sale at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

Cinderella at Hope Mill Theatre
Families Until 11 December 2022, from £27.00

Cinderella at Hope Mill Theatre

Music Until 17 December 2022, from £5

RNCM Autumn Season

Melissa Wan
Literature Until 17 December 2022, from £7

Ghosts at the Old Library

Flecky Bennett’s HALLOWEEN 2018 Ghost Walk
Activity Until 17 December 2022, from £15

Flecky Bennett’s Ghost Walks