A Delicate Balance, Almeida Theatre, London
Monday 16 May 2011
Edward Albee's 1966 country house comedy is a still startling mix of bizarre story-telling, sozzled sarcasm, unnamed terror and ruminations on friendship and alcohol.
You could write a history of modern American drama without moving from your bar stool, but Albee set the bar higher than most, firstly in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, still his best-known play, and secondly in this study of spiritually corrupt, wealthy neighbours and family driving each other nuts in Connecticut.
And as in Virginia Woolf there's a dead child lurking. Agnes and Tobias have never recovered from their loss, and everything else on this long night's journey into day over one long weekend is refracted through their sorrow and regret. Albee himself was an unhappy adopted child, raised in loveless luxury; and it shows. Penelope Wilton's icily unbending hostess is at permanent loggerheads with her chaotic 36-year-old daughter, Julia (Lucy Cohu), while Tim Pigott-Smith's apparently genial Tobias, her husband, can be struck with vicious remorse at the death of a cat
Harold Pinter, whose 1965 The Homecoming played on Broadway in the same season as A Delicate Balance, said that you always felt something terrible was about to happen in Albee. His theatricality resides in this sense of danger. Headlights sweep the darkly lit, semi-circular book-lined sitting room. The neighbours have come to stay because they are frightened: "There was nothing."
The writing style forms its own metaphor of emptiness and need. It's something like the baroque formality of TS Eliot in The Family Reunion, but James Macdonald's superb ensemble production leaves no room for either portentousness, or showy audience-baiting in the stand-off between Agnes and her drunken sister Claire.
In the latter role, Imelda Staunton plays the pathology of her condition much more than did Maggie Smith in the last West End revival; she turns glumly in on herself and hardens into savage truculence with a fresh glass in her hand: "Vodka? Sunday? Ten-to-eight? Well, why the hell not?"
Life goes on, and with the terror has come the plague. Originally, critics thought of the atom bomb, then perhaps of disease, now it might be terrorism. It was Albee's genius to detonate these fears in a stylish and disturbing theatrical expression.
To 2 July (020 7359 4404; www.almeida.co.uk)
film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 4 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
- 5 Rashida Jones speaks out against male-centric porn saying 'women should have sex and feel good about it'
Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
Game of Thrones really doesn't want Danny Dyer - EastEnders star rejected three times
Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
25 years of Disney: How Darth Vader, Iron Man, Elsa and Pixar's geniuses helped the company conquer the world (again)
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures
King Abdullah dead: We can't afford not to hold Saudi Arabia's royals to account