REVIEW: Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf@Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Kat Pope March 13, 2017

Staunton continues to wow the West End in this stunning production.

Imelda Staunton: Photo Johan Persson
Imelda Staunton: Photo Johan Persson

Given the calibre of casting and of writing, could director James Macdonald have gone wrong with this new production of the classic Edward Albee 1962 play of that oh so thin line between love and hate?

Well, I suppose he could, but he doesn’t. Instead he cranks up the gears again and again throughout the play’s three hour running time, ending in a quiet scene that breaks a whole theatre’s heart.

Imelda Staunton’s Martha is the daughter of a New England college principle, and is married to Conleth Hill’s George, once the head of the history department but now a mere professor and, in Martha’s eyes, a failure of the highest and bitterest order (“I swear if you existed I’d divorce you” being one of her kinder barbs).

Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill: Photo Johan Persson

They’ve been to a faculty party. It’s 2am, and they’re only just getting going. Martha has invited a younger college couple around because Daddy said they should get to know them. But the real reason is that they’re a nice bit of fresh meat for these two to get their talons into, to bare their souls to, to manipulate, to paw over, to bewitch and bamboozle and perhaps seduce.

Bickering even before their guests arrive, one minute they’re all over each other, all baby talk and ‘big sloppy kisses’, the next they’re apart, filling the void with the electricity of witty and familiar abhorrence. Oh they hate, they spit, they spew, but they just can’t get enough of each other.

Luke Treadaway: Photo Johan Persson
Luke Treadaway: Photo Johan Persson

Then along come the couple of flies into the spiders’ web; Nick (a louche Luke Treadaway), a young biology professor who seemingly has his future in the faculty all set out before him, and his ingenuous, rather dim wife Honey (a beguiling Imogen Poots).

Then the fun really starts. George and Martha are game players (is what they say truth, lies, or somewhere in between?) of the highest order, but their games are dangerous and dark, spiteful and sometimes horrifying.

As the booze flows, revelations and alliances are made, the cruelty gets even more blatant, and this lacerating play just fizzes and pops.

Staunton, who seemingly can do no wrong, is here magnificent as the wounded and wounding Martha. She’s sexy, flirty, but also downright fierce, and her dalliance with Nick, despite the age gap, is totally believable as she’s such a fox.

Hill, as the slouching George, is just marvellous. His eloquent face catches every spike, every slight thrown at him by Staunton, seemingly absorbing it until he needs to return fire and then does he go some! It’s George you feel for for the first half, poor put upon George, but as the play revs up, George does too, giving more of what he’s getting, and initiating much more of the action. He’s a malevolent lumbering old beast, surprisingly vicious.

The set, seen from anywhere but the stalls, reveals a perfect metaphor: a soft, deep pile rug set in a large square of tiles becomes a domestic boxing ring, making the characters shuffle and bounce around in steel toe capped slippers as they throw their punches.

Albee’s play feels as fresh as a daisy, the humour not having dated a bit. It’s very often laugh out loud, much more so than many West End ‘comedies’ I’ve seen lately.

I hear there are only a handful of tickets left for this show which I think will have no extension due to Staunton’s commitments. Just go and get one now. For days after you’ll find yourself humming “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to yourself, and every time it’ll send a little shiver down your spine.

at The Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, London
*****Five stars