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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Almeida


  Imelda Staunton and Lucy Cohu/ Ph: Hugo Glendinning

How can civilized people behave like this?

Each of the six characters anatomized in Edward Albee’s 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning script has his or her own Calvary to bear. Isolated, yet inexorably bound together, their barely contained tensions – loves, jealousies, hatreds, dreads, desperations – are all poised to erupt at any moment. The results, set out in three acts that stretch from a drab Friday evening to an eye-wateringly harsh Sunday sunrise, are a series of hair-trigger explosions.

The play takes place in the elegant New England home of Agnes and Tobias (Penelope Wilton, Tim Pigott-Smith). About to become senior citizens, they are inhabitants of the top 1 percent: live-in servants et al. There is a Milton Avery canvas above the bar that is, in turn, flanked by handsome sets of leather-bound books, numerous bits of sculpture and glowing kilims on the polished parquet floor. Even though everything but the booze bottles is taken for granted, we are in a room, a realm, of privilege.

And is that actually the problem? These exceedingly well-heeled characters live in a gated-community cocoon where they have nothing to do but think – and drink. Has Tobias ever changed a light bulb? No. Has Agnes ever ironed a shirt? Of course not. Instead they spend their time probing the accumulated wounds that add up to their lives.

They do so not just in complete, but in compound sentences. You can hear the semicolons, dashes, caesuras and all the other possible punctuation permutations. And, as often as not, Albee’s dialogue feels as if it could have been born during some surreal brainstorming session shared with Noel Coward and Samuel Beckett. Savage and utterly unforgiving, this is a drawing-room comedy that lacerates. It leaves you laughing at both its malice and its despair.

Agnes, bristling with sibling rivalry, is resentful of the freedom that her live-in lush of a sister, Claire (Imelda Staunton), manages to find at the bottom of a brandy bottle. But Wilton, her hair in a blond flip a la Grace Kelly or January Jones, screws down her emotions with a ruthless, supposedly admirable determination – except, of course, for those precise moments when she strikes like a rattlesnake. In the first two acts she wears both pearls and sleekly tailored designer slacks. Are we being shown that Agnes wears the pants in this family? Probably.

Yet neither she nor Tobias is prepared for the unexpected arrival of Harry and Edna (Ian McElhinney, Diana Hardcastle) who are repeatedly described in one of the play’s mantras as “our best friends.” But, but, but … questions of loyalty become one of the pernicious notions lurking just below the surface, percolating in the dark.

As act two begins, Agnes and Tobias’ serially divorced daughter, Julia (Lucy Cohu), once again flees to the refuge of her parents’ home only to find that her room has been usurped by Harry and Edna. Why? Albee never defines the dread that is terrifying them. But Julia, even though she is now 36, predictably reverts to type, shouting for mommy and daddy to make everything all right. Screeching like a pampered banshee, she demands that Harry and Edna be evicted.

This production, directed with subtle ingenuity by James Macdonald, achieves its own consummate balance. Not an ounce, not an inch is wasted. A complete circle, hermetically sealed, this is the finest, most evenly poised ensemble acting I have seen in decades.

Everything has been so clever, so brittle, so much more suave and savvy than normal life can ever hope to be that the climactic scene, when Tobias goes over the edge as he tries to come to terms with his life, seems as much a breach of etiquette as a howl of desperation. All he has ever believed or cherished is collapsing into irreconcilable contradictions, but his “best friend” doesn’t react


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