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Theatre: Still playing children's games

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