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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

14 October 15 words: Gareth Morgan
We got down to Lace Market Theatre to find out what battlelines are drawn in the drawing room
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

 

A play that lets you out at 10:40 after a 7:30 start is one for those who like their theatre long. This is the case for the Lace Market Theatre's latest production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee’s domestic slug fest clocking in at around three and a quarter hours, but the pay-off of a deft final act is well worth it. 

First staged in 1962, this is Albee in full Eugene O’Neill mode - a long night's journey into dawn - with middle-aged Associate Professor George and his wife Martha - coincidentally the daughter of the university's president, George's boss - return from a cocktail party with new lecturer Nick and his wife Honey. This is no forum for small talk but the portrait of a strained and desperate marriage fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol. George and Martha's relationship is one in need of both a defibrillator and a liver transplant. 

As they air their grievances over yet another bourbon or gin, their past - both real and make believe - is charged at the other, weaponised and cruel, with Nick and Honey unwillingly entangled into the drama. To Martha, George is a failure worthy of only her disdain and disappointment and to him she is callous and controlling. In front of their guests, engage in a joust of malapropisms and pedantry, getting a perverse excitement from such a public mauling of one another. Behind their malice and peevish games there is however a desperate secret which only comes clear as the play reaches its dénouement. 

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In their sparring across the tilt-yard of their living room, Malcolm Todd as George and Sally Brown as Martha are well cast and although moments of their rancour lacked an extra level of vicious needle, they do show that beyond the feuding, there is a pin-prick of light and warmth shining through. Todd's performance was at its best in the verbal tennis he plays out with Matthew Tomason's Nick, and Lucy Wakefield's Honey brings a frailty to the role which cracks open as the play moves on apace.

Nick and Honey can feel like a second on-stage audiences when George and Martha are in their pomp - but both characters have their own chance to shine, especially Tomason in his post-Mrs Robinson moment malfunction with Martha. Overall the performance lacked a bit of zip in the dialogue but the performance, with such a long script, had few moments which dragged. Directed and designed by Max Bromley, this is a strong show, if slightly diminished by some curious overhead stage light fittings which added little to the performance - often blocking the action and creating an uneven lighting cover. In a commendably neat minimalist set, these were an idea too far. Whilst I know it's unfair, it's impossible not to compare any production of the play to the cultural icon that is Mike Nichols' Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor film version - for which the latter won her second Best Actress Oscar. This production goes its own way, however, and is the stronger for it.

It's the punishing final act of the three which is the strongest. Honey, in her broken state, finds in a moment of clarity that she is a Martha waiting to happen, whilst the fighting between the older couple comes to a violent crescendo. As the young ones shuffle off into the dawn light, there is such a pay-off - confirming both Albee's skill as a dramatist and Brown's emotional depths as a performer. The show is a slog - filled with the bitterness of empty nests and empty lives - but after watching these three hours of uncivil war, you leave feeling bruised and empowered, realising that, as Leonard Cohen would put it, "there is a crack in everything - That's how the light gets in." 

It's another strong showing from the Lace Market Theatre, who continue to be the strongest amateur set-up in town, and their endeavours to regularly pick challenging modern scripts for their shows is well worth supporting.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is at the Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 17 October 2015.

Lace Market website

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