Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Theatre, Drama Harold Pinter Theatre , Soho Until Saturday May 27 2017
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Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill

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Imelda Staunton

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Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots

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Imogen Poots

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Conleth Hill

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Luke Treadaway

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Conleth Hill and Imelda Staunton

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© Johan Persson

Conleth Hill and Imelda Staunton

Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill are devastating in Albee's iconic play

You go into the late Edward Albee's 1962 masterpiece  ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ already braced for impact. Maybe you studied it, maybe you saw the film, maybe you just know its reputation.

But bloody hell: in the hands of director James Macdonald - and his world class cast, headed by Imelda Staunton - it feels unexpectedly shattering. Not because of how extreme it makes the world of embittered New England couple George (Conleth Hill) and Martha (Staunton) seem, but because it makes it all horribly, plausibly human. 

Under too-bright lights, accompanied by the headachey hiss of Adam Cork's white noise soundtrack, a nightmare plays out. It is 2am, and Martha has invited Nick (Luke Treadaway) and his wife Honey (Imogen Poots) back to their house. He is a new, young academic at the university George works at and her father runs, and she has been instructed to be nice to him.

This does not go so well: George and Martha tear strips off each, then their guests. Bitter secrets are unearthed. But where sometimes the hosts' performance feel like a familiar ritual being reenacted, here it all feels horribly fresh and avoidable. Staunton and Hill are sensitive live wires, not fossilised weirdos. If they'd just gone to bed at a sensible time, if he'd felt a little less humiliated by her, if she'd been a little less goaded by him, if everyone had had just a splash less liquor, if just one barbed insult fewer had been tossed, if Treadaway's Nick had been less of a douche, if Poots's Honey was less of a lightweight, if, if, if... then the awful events that follow might have been avoided. There is a terrible, pit-of-the-stomach sense of free fall, of something uniquely disastrous occurring as the strutting, jaded Nick proves receptive to the older couple's special brand of psychological warfare.

At some point in the last several years, Staunton took her place as an official national treasure, her generation's heir to Dench and Smith, the sort of actor who you expect to blow you away. She is as good as you'd hope - playful, witty and malicious, but also desperately, desperately vulnerable, lonely and sensitive and frightened of the world outside her constructed realm of barbs and sneers. When she breaks down at the end, it's not just desserts, but the final failure of an elaborate coping mechanism.

For me, though, the real revelation was Hill. His George is a peculiar, frightening mix of Bill Murray and Steve Bannon (who he looks the spit of): deadpan, charming and even likeable, but with a shockingly caustic nastiness underneath. There is a real sense that if the couple are matched in intellect, it is abuse from him – as much as anything else – that have led them to this point. 

Treadaway and Poots have the smaller roles, but make good on them. After goody two shoes lead parts in ‘War Horse and ‘Curious Incident’, Treadaway clearly relishes the chance to be a selfish drunken shit, who gripes about his wife and almost has it off with the hostess. And Poots is painfully sad and sweet, a free spirit only saddled with her grumpy husband because the times and their families expected it – she is ripe for becoming a new Martha. 

Many aspects of this production feel pretty trad - Tom Pye's set, for starters - but none of that stifles this revival's horrible, vertiginous sense of fast-moving tragedy, of crashing descent.

By: Andrzej Lukowski

Posted:

Venue name: Harold Pinter Theatre
Contact:
Address: 6 Panton Street
London
SW1Y 4DN
Transport: Piccadilly Circus tube
Price: £15-£90. Runs 3hr
Event website: http://www.atgtickets.com
To improve this listing email: feedback@timeout.com

Average User Rating

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LiveReviews|14
2 people listening
dnwilliams

Really thoroughly enjoyed the show. Great performances from the entire cast, and never a dull moment.


A few scenes feel contrived, and it's hard to know if I feel that way because of the writing or the staging, but despite one or two events not feeling naturalistic, they manage to make you feel fully invested in everything that unfolds.

Kat
tastemaker

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf?

I think I might be...

In all seriousness this play was an intense, mind blowing epic performance.

With 4 characters, Martha takes the lead played by Imelda Staunton.

The character flicks between moods and you don't know what story comes next.

Martha & George are hosting two new guests who have just started teaching at the university.

Little do they know or even the audience know what they are letting themselves in for.

As the characters drink their way through the night this is the tale of a 3 hour dramatic performance of Martha & George's marriage.

Set in 1970s the language, political references and the beautiful 70s American decor really do immerse you into the story.

You will be shocked, hooked and come out asking yourself what the hell was that all about.

Best play I have seen this year without a doubt.

William w
tastemaker

An excellent play that can be both a joy and a discomfort to watch. Martha and George played brilliantly by Staunton and Hill, begin the early hours by gently snapping at each other. Once the guests arrive, they use this young couple as a vehicle to extend what seems to be a game like ritual against each other. Perhaps they see themselves as this young couple and they remind them of wasted opportunities and what might have been. For the young couple they see a reminder like a mirror image of how their marriage might eventually look.



Emily W
tastemaker

Whether or not you know the story, this is guaranteed to be one of the most powerful and gripping productions you'll see all year. There isn't a moment where the acting even remotely slips up, and all four actors and actresses were perfectly cast and absolutely incredible in their own right. One thing I would say is that it is quite long, and although there are two short breaks, there were a few brief moments during the play where my mind wondered as there's a lot of dialogue to take in and not all of it is essential in understanding the story. Aside, from that, i've little hesitation in recommending this to anyone and everyone that wants to witness an intense, riotous theatrical masterpiece. 

Carly-Ann Clements
Staff Writer

Absolutely incredible. One of the most emotive shows I've ever seen and I was completely sucked into their world and felt every snide remark, every dig and ever painful jibe. The performances were superb, possibly the best I've ever seen on stage. The play itself is obviously hard edged, cutting and unpleasant but it's a masterpiece of theatre. 


My only complaint was that Act 3 couldn't keep the pace and hold my attention as much as Acts 1 and 2, other than that, it was one of the best thigns I've seen in the past year.

Paula - ToT
tastemaker

This play is very intense and can be tough-going at three hours.  However, the cast are brilliant and all four actors shine is this somewhat bizarre/uncomfortable production.  I’m not sure if I necessary loved the storyline, but I thoroughly enjoyed the performances.  Much debate has been had over the theatre’s decision to ban food during the show and this has unfortunately detracted somewhat from a good play.

John C
tastemaker

The play by Edward Albee is one of the great American plays of all time (from the 60's). It all takes place on an American College Campus. A Young newly married couple Nick & Honey (played by Luke Treadaway & Imogen Poot) are invited for (very) late drinks by a more mature married couple George & Martha (played by Conleth Hill & Imelda Staunton). What follows is a spectacular verbal firework display.
The cast work well together. Conleth Hill is particularly impressive, while Imelda Staunton (who seems to get better ,& better & better) is just magnificent.

Daniel L
Tastemaker

Four actors in the prime of their lives, this was one of the most perfectly cast plays that I have ever seen. Each individual brought their A game to his or her role and it culminates in a gripping performance. The subject matter is NOT easy and it is meant to disturb and provoke. So be warned. Best also not to come with a potential date or wife. Imelda Staunton was again the star of the show, but Conleth Hill was excellent and shows he is more than just his Game of Thrones character. The set is simple but effective enough not to detract away from the quality of the chemistry and the dialogue of the actors. This will definitely be one of the best pieces of theatre you will see this year.

nicknickn
Tastemaker

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf perfectly illustrates the difference between the questions "Was it good?" and "Did you enjoy it?" This is a fantastic play, and a wonderful production of it. The acting was immense from all four characters. Imelda Staunton was as brilliant as you would expect and Conleth Hill was a revelation, he lives that part - how they can keep up that intensity for three hours per performance is incredible.

The set is simple but effective and three hours flew by because of the compelling nature of the character interaction. However it is comparable to watching a car crash in slow motion because the farther you move into the play the stronger the realisation becomes - that there can be no happy conclusion here.

So, I did not enjoy it very much, it wasn't written for enjoyment, but this does not prevent it being one of the best plays on in London at the moment. The audience really appreciated it too, it is a rare thing these days to see the whole audience stand in ovation from curtain down, and this was truly deserved.

Chris
Tastemaker

Three hours fly by in this riotous, stinging play with star turns from Imelda Staunton and Con O’Neill who star as the married couple who can barely be in the same room together. A classic play brought to life on the west end stage by theatre legends.

Bonnie W
Tastemaker

I have to admit I didn’t know anything about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf prior to buying tickets, but I had seen Imelda Staunton’s Olivier winning performance in Gypsy and I knew she would not disappoint. The show takes place in the living room of a couple in their late forties - he is a professor and she is the daughter of the university president. After a faculty party they invite a young couple they met who are new to the university. The older couple can barely stand the site of one another anymore, while the younger couple appear at first to be picture perfect. As the night unfolds, way too many drinks are had and everything unravels. Imelda Staunton looks fantastic in her tight black outfit, chosen to impress. The first act has some funny moments that offset the tension, but as the show goes on, everything gets very dark. The play lasts over three hours and is quite exhausting to watch, I can only imagine how challenging it would be to act.  

Richard N
Tastemaker

What can I say? Edward Albee leaves indelible marks on his audiences' psyche, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is certainly no exception. The great Imelda Staunton graces us with her presence once again after the success of 2016's Gypsy, and holy cow is she a force to be reckoned with. This is one woman you won't want to be married to, and Conleth Hill has the misfortune to have done that for years as George, who is emasculated by her infidelity and constant reminders that he's a fat failure. Yet for all its acidity, there's a real tenderness to their wonderful onstage chemistry, and underneath the disturbing, toxic games they play there's love! Why else would they stay in a marriage for so long? 


At the very least, there's way more love between them than Nick Treadaway and Imogen Poots' Nick and Honey, whose charmed exterior hides a sham marriage built on lies and convenience. This is an extremely capable cast that really brings out the failure of the American Dream to deliver and the pressures it puts on its citizens to bring out the image of a perfect family, leading only to regrets and lots of drinking despite the very nice house (designed by Tom Pye). In one of the worst house parties ever, you can be sure that you'll be blown away by this production, and it's definitely a bit of a Big Thing to see Staunton onstage at all, because she's definitely one of Britain's absolute best. Watch this!! 

Sonia C
0 of 1 found helpful

The problem with this play (& for me this was insurmountable) is that each & everyone of the 4 characters are either irritating or intensely unlikeable. The central relationship between Martha & George is toxic & made for uncomfortable viewing. The audience were laughing while my teeth were gritted. It goes without saying that Imelda Staunton gives yet another tour de force performance but it's a shame this is such an unsympathetic vehicle for such a star turn. I left at the first break because I was finding the whole experience too much of a downer to stay on!

Claire D
0 of 4 found helpful

The acting was fabulous but it was certainly not enjoyable and we left after an hour.  Martha (Imelda) relationship with her husband (Conleth) was uncomfortable to watch.  Her belittling and bullying, over and over, made me want to jump on stage and stand up for the poor guy.  Unless you have marriage problems and want to see how much worse your relationship could be, I'd save your money