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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Albee
Trafalgar Studios 2
(2009)

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The idea of staging Virginia Woolf in an intimate studio space is good, if potentially terrifying. The experience is rather like being in the living room of acquaintances who not only start up a personal nuclear war but draw in their guests as weapons.

To a degree, actor turned director Andrew Hall's production, first seen in Lichfield, achieves this effect. Hall, who is currently playing in Mamma Mia just up the road, sets the drama in a shabby red room at the home of university faculty types George and Martha.

The couple may be named after the Washingtons but their home life is less upstanding. By 2am, after a party at the home of Martha's God-like daddy, the alcohol is screaming, which is unfortunate for their young visitors.

An unrecognisable Matthew Kelly makes a stooped, shambling George. He is a professorial failure who seems lucky to have kept his faux glamorous floozy of a wife, Tracey Childs.

The couple are held together by mutual mental sado-masochism and possibly their son, whose 21st birthday they are about to celebrate.

The warfare has started before Ivy League star Nick, with brains and muscle overflowing, rolls in with his rich but dim wife Honey.

From there on, the play explores the fascinating subject of truth and illusion primarily on a cruel personal level but also in the context of the fast-failing Great American Dream and the prospect of a global conflagration as the Cold War reached its peak in the early 1960s.

Albee is frequently opaque but on this occasion much of the meaning shines out like a beacon, as insults are traded and mental blows knock every member of the quartet around.

In the acting stakes, it is those playing the weaker pair who come out on top. While the shrill, strident Miss Childs and Mark Farrelly playing charmless Master of the Universe Nick seem relatively one dimensional, ploughing their heartless furrows, the others show colour in vulnerability.

Despite his physical advantage, George frequently seems on the verge of tears of frustration. Honey, played by Louise Kempton, may have little brain and much money, but she has the kind of cheerfulness and ignorance that will overcome any humiliation and this is a play packed with them.

As a demonstration of psychological warfare as a metaphor for the more devastating kind, Virginia Woolf is one of the best.

This production does not have the fireworks of the best examples that have pitted some of the finest actors of their generations against each other as George and Martha. It is though worth a visit to see an intimate chamber version of a great work.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher