The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? Almeida, London

Albee's animal passion
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The Independent Culture

Edward Albee's illustrious career began with The Zoo Story. It continues now with what could be called "The Zoophilia Story''. But this is no everyday tale of bestiality in the American suburbs. Albee's protagonist, Martin, is at the pinnacle of life. He has the lot: a loving, 22-year-old marriage, health, wealth and professional recognition in the shape of the world's top prize for architecture. Then he lays eyes on a goat called Sylvia and, well, she's everything he never even knew he wanted. Compliant to his sexual embraces, too.

Martin is at pains to convince his wife, Stevie (who finds about the other woman from a whistle-blowing friend) that he is not like the sad victims and inadequates who attend his animal lovers' therapy class. His passion for the goat is different in kind from their "beggars-can't-be-choosers" approach. It's onset, he declares, was like an ecstatic epiphany. Sylvia is his one-and-only, the real, right thing - in that category at any rate. To say that she poses competition would be a contradiction in terms. Perhaps not surprisingly, Stevie (likeable Kate Fahy) responds by systematically smashing, with a kind of calmly furious consideration, one objet d'art after another in their lovely home.

The cross-species affair in The Goat is less part of a campaign for a rethink of the animus against this particular taboo than a way of illustrating the terrifying irrationality of love in both its conception and subsequent uncontrollability. Albee, the clever technician, is also playing artful games with the audience's levels of tolerance. The snag, though, is that audiences differ quite markedly. I first saw the play on Broadway with the fur-dangling, blue rinse Sunday matinée crowd who had clearly come to be deliciously scandalised and departed in audible (and very interesting) confabs about love and legislation. At the Almeida - where the public is achingly liberal - Anthony Page's sleek British premiere is beautifully gauged, but is elegantly hurling itself against a more-or-less open door.

Instead of softening folk up with Noel Coward pastiche and a default mode set at drawing-room sitcom, you want the play, in these surroundings, to get to the meat of the matter more quickly. There are too many obvious jokes about cruising farmyards etc that aren't quite acquitted by the, "this situation is too serious to be serious,'' defence. A grizzled, wiry Jonathan Pryce as Martin has brilliant surges of tragic pain and abandonment. On the other hand, you wonder what the wife and Sylvia see in this dried-up, nit-picking pedant. A happier scenario would have the two females cutting out the middle-man in a finessing Sapphic wallow in some romantic barn.

Eddie Redmayne as Billy, the 17-year-old gay son, is the most electrically alive person on stage. Poignantly lanky and dragged into a crisis before enough skins have had the chance to form on him, this astonishing young actor shows you a raw, angry, vulnerable teenager whose needy and pretty sexual desire for "Poppa" has not been properly worked through before Poppa goes ape with Sylvia - a creature who, by the end, I'm afraid, has firmly put the "goat'' back into "scapegoat''. The kiss between father and son which, on the boy's side, develops a hungry, erotic charge is accidentally witnessed by Ross (Matthew Marsh) - Martin's oldest pal - who somewhat improbably becomes the voice of reactionary prejudice and a snitching informer the moment he hears about Sylvia. Billy delivers a nice, catty put-down of Ross: "I want to sleep with everyone... except you, probably,'' but the play would be stronger if this character and his views weren't so easy to dismiss. And no, wild horses won't drag out of me a "getting your goat'' gag.

To 13 March (020-7359 4404)