A Delicate Balance, Almeida Theatre, London

Michael Coveney
Monday 16 May 2011 00:00
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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)

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