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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Albee
Apollo Theatre
(2006)

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It may only have been written in 1962 but Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is already recognised as one of the stage classics that will endure.

English director Anthony Page's award-winning revival was bound to be something special. Why else would a whole Broadway show transfer to London with cast and backstage creative team intact? With this build-up, it would take a lot for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to live up to the hype - but it does.

This could be the year of the American import with Wicked, Avenue Q, Spamalot and The Exonerated all coming over but few will bring across whole casts. Even last year's smash hit, David Falls' Death of a Salesman with Brian Dennehy had a Transatlantic cast.

The play's protagonists, George and Martha, are regarded as iconic representatives of both their own age and any other. It is pleasing to report that on this occasion, the now somewhat matronly Kathleen Turner and the kooky Bill Irwin realise them almost to perfection.

Actors playing the parts have to compete with some haunting ghosts from earlier productions. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor starred in the film, while David Suchet and Diana Rigg (soon to open in Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour at Wyndham's) played the parts in the most recent London version, which started life at the Almeida.

Designer John Lee Beatty puts the cast into a drab brown living room with rows of records a sign that we are the sixties. This impression is confirmed by the ladies' costumes, which are almost unbelievable today. These include a hideous turquoise suit, a strange floral cardigan and an indescribable orange coat.

George and Martha are a married couple at the centre of college life in the mythical New England community of New Carthage. The weak-chinned George is a history professor, six years the bombastic lady's junior, who hasn't quite realised his potential.

His husky-voiced, loudly-sad wife can batter him down and order him around because she is highly influential. It helps that her father is college president and has given her private wealth.

The play takes place in the wee small hours of a September morning following the arrival of a younger couple who may eventually become the George and Martha of their own generation.

David Harbour's Nick is a handsome former quarterback and boxer, who has recently joined the biology department. His sinister specialism is a form of genetic engineering that less than twenty years after the Second World War sounds suspiciously like the Nazi Aryanism experiments.

Mireille Enos plays Honey, his tiny, red-haired wife who cannot compete with the other three intellectually but has a certain charm and knows how to sink brandy.

As the night runs its course, both marriages approach crisis point, as Martha makes a play for Nick in a thinly-veiled cry for help.

The pivotal moment of the play is a speech beautifully delivered by weary Martha, in which she finally acknowledges her love for and dependence on her constantly maligned husband.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a great play and, with two intervals, stretches to three gripping but bruising hours. All four actors play their parts wonderfully and they make a fine ensemble. In particular, Bill Irwin manages to combine a kooky weakness with the underlying steel that George must have in order to live and fight with his wild wife.

Tickets may well be hard to come by and therefore early booking for this excellent West End occasion is strongly advised.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher