Lovers of TV's Mad Men will feel very much at home amid the styling and fashions of this excellent Northern Stage and Sheffield Theatres co-production of Edward Albee's early 1960s American-dream-about-to-turn-sour classic.
But not even Don and Betty Draper at their most vituperative could hurt each other and those around them quite like George and Martha do. These two are pros in the art of mutual destruction. At first, the audience finds itself chuckling along merrily at their insults and withering put-downs, which bounce off each other's armour plating.
True, there is little in the way of feelgood humour, but as Martha points out, both husband and wife share a similarly fine sense of ridiculousness. Yet by the time the biologist Nick and his mousy spouse Honey have become embroiled, first as spectators and then as participants in the couple's alcohol-fuelled descent into total war – a conflict which see-saws between bitterness and violence – the laughter has entirely ceased.
Jasper Britton is outstanding as the bogged-down academic George, growing patiently in menace, while Sian Thomas is breathtakingly good as his vampish wife, the gin-soaked Martha. Her final scenes are utterly mesmerising as the play reaches a climax amid broken booze bottles, flaccid flirtations and truths better unsaid, but which now loom horribly in the dawn light over the encroaching hangovers of the protagonists.
George's determination to debunk hypocrisy at any costs with his cruel trinity of party games – Humiliate the Host, Hump the Hostess and Get the Guests – brilliantly hint at the decade's impending emotional free-for-all. Both Lorna Beckett and John Hopkins are admirable as Nick and Honey, but in the end they are helpless bystanders – like us – in thrall to the older couple's dysfunctional need of each other.
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