Edward Albee’s play about the emotional rigor mortis of late middle-age is cooler and more oblique than its famous predecessor, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’. It employs a similar scenario – a couple visited by unwanted guests – to expose the profound despair of its well-heeled Westchester creatures, who talk and talk without hope of a cure.
Penelope Wilton and Tim Piggott-Smith play householders Agnes and Tobias, in a cast which is nearly as sumptuous as designer Laura Hopkins’s leather and mahogany-upholstered set. They’re a cautionary pair, held together by her regulation, his kindliness and their mutual good manners.
Wilton is icy and elegiac while Piggott-Smith’s nonchalant ease of manner covers an inability to face stark truths. When his friends Harry and Edna (Ian McElhinney and Diana Hardcastle; pitiable and rather nasty) show up unasked with suitcases, fleeing the fear that overtook them when they were alone together in their own home, he cracks.
This being Albee, all six characters are alone together – especially Agnes’s sister Clare, a vodka-swigging, truth-telling poison dwarf in Imelda Staunton’s stingingly funny performance.
Being Albee, the numerous cocktails are midwife to catastrophe and revelation but all souls are barren here: even Agnes and Tobias’s daughter Julia (Lucy Cohu, excellent), a hysterical child-woman who shows up seeking refuge from her fourth fruitless marriage, is probably beyond change.
James Macdonald’s enormously intelligent production should open out and relax in the run: the rhythmic, diffuse wordiness here is a challenge for first-night nerves. Ultimately, it’s Tobias’s terrible desire – and partial failure – to be as expansive at heart as he is in his manner which lets Piggot-Smith give a fine-tuned revelation. This production doesn’t always balance between words and feeling, comedy and tragedy – but its delicacy is beyond doubt.