Imelda Staunton Imelda Staunton Photo: Johan Persson

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
By Edward Albee
Harold Pinter Theatre, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Tickets: www.atgtickets.com

Definitive is a word best avoided in relation to theatre because the point after all is that plays must be reborn with each revival, but it is difficult to conceive of a production of this play which could be better.

Conleth Hill Photo: Johan Persson
The key to it is James Macdonald’s direction and a quartet of pitch perfect performances. Macdonald mines every line for meaning and psychological insight and reminds us just what a coruscating masterpiece this is, an unforgivingly honest play about how we all cling to our illusions in order to get by. He’s blessed with two leads, Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill, who are steeped in musical comedy as well as drama and so bring to it a quicksilver comic timing. This means that the humour of the piece, and there is lots especially in the first Act, is underlined. At times it appears as gossamer light as Coward. It also doesn’t feel like a long day’s journey into night as in other productions which have made heavy weather of it. The pacing is impeccable, each section flows organically into the next and there is no forbidding build-up.

It’s 2.00 am and we’re in a New England college town in the early 1960s. George, a history professor and his wife Martha trundle back from a faculty party. Her father is the college President. Martha announces they have guests arriving for a nightcap. In come the twentysomething couple, Nick and Honey, Nick being a fellow academic new to the college. The booze starts flowing and games commence.

Staunton had a hard act to follow here. Kathleen Turner and Diana Rigg were the most recent incarnations of Martha in the West End but, in another career high for her, she makes it her own. Trussed up in her sexy gear she stands, feet set wide apart, like a General surveying a battlefield. Having mastered Gypsy’s Mama Rose we know she can do brassy but she comes into her own here in the quieter moments. Elated by the joke after George has scared everyone witless with a toy rifle she lurches towards him seeking a tender kiss. He recoils and in the sting of this momentary sexual humiliation we sense the core of so much that will follow.

Much has been written about how the play is such an illuminating portrait of an abusive relationship but this rather misses the point. George and Martha are locked together in co-dependency. “YOU can stand it, you married me for it” she brays. They will survive. It’s the folk who get in their way we need to feel sympathy for.

Hill is a revelation as George. At first the personification of paunchy middle aged failure, by Act Three he’s on fire. The conventional All-American hunk Nick is no match for his razor sharp mind and Macdonald draws out the extent of their mutual contempt. Luke Treadaway brings an intelligence to Nick which is refreshing. We see this golden boy is a gold digger too and Martha’s sexual mauling of him is all the more credible because Treadaway has the looks of an Adonis. Imogen Poots in an impressive West End debut counters Honey’s porcelain like fragility with some inner steel, which the alcohol draws out.

Tom Pye’s perfectly detailed set and Charles Balfour’s lighting provides us with a more lived-in home than usual, one frayed from the many late nights this duo would have inflicted on it. As the harsh, cold, light of dawn rises the audience is left as shaken and transfigured as Martha.

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Luke Treadaway Imogen Poots Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots Photo: Johan Persson

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