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A Delicate Balance

Edward Albee
Almeida Theatre
(2011)

A Delicate Balance production photo

Edward Albee loves to play unhappy families and, further, feels little need to observe the rules imposed by a desire to present a photographic reproduction of real life.

No one would call A Delicate Balance an easy play but director James MacDonald is always willing to take on a challenge. Aided by impeccable casting, the result of this pairing should be a great success.

The drama is played out in a well-furnished, oval mahogany- and book-lined lounge with a quiet, darkened hallway in the background, complete with still life of flowers. This serves to remind us of what has been lost when all hell breaks loose downstage, as it does throughout.

The lounge is part of the comfortable home belonging to affluent socialites, Tobias and Agnes, in which the clans gather for a psychological war during which it is often hard to distinguish metaphor from truth.

Even after a lifetime together, Tim Pigott-Smith's subservient Tobias and Penelope Wilton, playing his more forceful wife, have forged a happy alliance that might even be based on love. The family home has a third member, Agnes' drunken sister.

Showing great relish for the character's foibles, Imelda Staunton plays the appropriately-named Claire, who through an alcoholic haze has that knack possessed by few of utilising a Cassandra-like clarity of vision.

The sisters bicker and underlying this is both an old familiarity and an underlying battle for the man of the house's affections.

A constant truce barely holds and the arrival of three visitors lights the touch paper of an incendiary Midsummer Night's Dream (or, more accurately, nightmare).

The first arrivals are the couple's best friends, Harry and Edna (Ian McElhinney and Diana Hardcastle). Struck by a fear that results from a "plague", they arrive not as anticipated for a brief after-dinner drink but one night of sanctuary that threatens to become a lifetime. Soon enough, they are behaving like hosts rather than penurious guests.

The final arrival has been much heralded. This is Lucy Cohu in the guise of Julia, the four times married 36-year-old daughter who is just in the process of breaking up from her latest unwise choice of husband. The actress reaches a zenith in an evening of powerful performances during a temper tantrum directed at Harry and Edna that would have scared away any but the hardiest houseguests. Indeed, its terrifying resonance could easily be felt in the middle of the stalls.

Albee litters the two and three-quarter hours with clues as to what might be making these comfortably-off people so uncomfortable. In a motif that often occurs with this playwright, three decades before, Julia's brother had died. Perhaps as a result, Julia has never managed to grow up, making all of her marriages disasters before they even start.

The loss of their son also still has an obvious influence on Tobias and the very still Agnes, a woman who is unforgiving of almost everyone and has a malign streak.

We never discover whether the "plague" is real or not and there is a feeling, as so often in his work, that Edward Albee enjoys using unusual, unbelievable plot devices so that he can allow audiences the pleasure of discovering how his characters will behave in extreme circumstances.

The evening builds to what should be a tempestuous closure, although the ambivalence of all concerned, and especially Tobias, keeps viewers guessing until the very end.

Laura Hopkins' design of both the traditional set and the ghastly 1960s costumes is everything that one could hope for, immensely helped by really subtle lighting from Guy Hoare, that conveys everything from an arriving car to images that could easily be drawn from old Master paintings.

MacDonald's meticulous direction ensures that every gesture, movement and utterance seems entirely convincing and he is well served by his excellent sextet of actors, almost any one of whom might find themselves nominated for an award come the end of the year.

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Reviewer: Philip Fisher