Theatre: Still playing children's games

THE PLAY ABOUT THE BABY ALMEIDA LONDON

THE CHILDLESS middle-aged couple in Edward Albee's classic play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, have invented a fantasy son who is the object of some of their most vicious marital games, and who needs to be killed off if the drama is to reach any sort of catharsis.

Some three-and-a-half decades later, there's a strange, distorted echo of this at the close of Albee's latest work, The Play About the Baby, which is unveiled now in Howard Davies' beautifully acted, darkly larky production at the Almeida, in Islington, north London.

Here, though, it's a young inexperienced couple who are eventually browbeaten into denying the existence of the sincerely-believed-in flesh-and-blood baby who has been stolen from them. It's only when they can concede that this offspring is a phantom that their tormentors cease to plague them.

The Play About the Baby is a puzzling piece, very different in manner from Who's Afraid... On an almost bare set, it brings into conflict two couples. There's the twentysomething boy and girl, whose sexy glow of animal good health is effortlessly projected by Rupert Penry-Jones and Zoe Waites. Chasing each other naked across the stage, they are in vibrant contrast to the fiftysomething man and woman whose quizzical, archly self-dramatising air is conveyed by Alan Howard and Frances de la Tour with a delicious drollery.

This latter pair chat familiarly with the audience about such topics as the effect of theatrical intermissions on health. The woman has sudden, pottily Pentecost-like fits of being able to communicate in sign language. All smirking smugness, the man gets to deliver his favourite speech twice when he directs a lengthy recapitulation of the climax at the end of Act One.

But their ludic, teasing methods prove to be part of a darker purpose when it becomes clear that they have plotted to steal the baby and subject the younger couple to a wrenching ordeal.

"What gives you the right to have a child?" is a question that would naturally be of particular interest to Albee, who was adopted. But the test conducted here is decidedly peculiar. It is not as though these are a couple of cruelly irresponsible parents, or that the senior pair are overburdened with caring credentials. The man, for example, scoffs at the young couple's love for their child. He seems to be provoked by the idea of a baby as an expression of conformity or personal need.

As they bombard their bewildered juniors with false insinuations of homosexual hanky-panky and insert themselves lewdly and polymorphously into their memories, the man and woman conjure up a bizarre, reckless world of alternative opportunity. The strategy is to reduce the stereo- typical young couple to the point where they take nothing for granted any more, not even the existence of their child. Whether this produces a redemptive purgation, and hence a better basis for future parenthood, is left open at the tearful, sober close.

The play is an artful mix of skittishness and seriousness, elements beautifully balanced in Davies' production. But it is also generalised, and sealed off in its own theoretical dramatic universe, where a couple can go through the harrowing business of losing a baby without once indicating, in their conversations, what sex it is, let alone its name.

At one point, the girl protests that a couple who had children could not have devised this ordeal. There are times when you feel that a man who had had children could not have written this play.

Paul Taylor

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices