Review – A Delicate Balance – The Almeida

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Edward Albee’s play A Delicate Balance, now some forty-five years old, shows a remarkable agelessness despite its references to topless bathing suits and households where women actually say the men run the show (rather than freely admitting the truth). Questions of social obligations, the problems of alcoholism, and fear of aging and death are just as utterly relevant today as they were when it was written. And, joyously, Albee’s unhappy family is one of the best representatives of the unclassifiable type (of endless unique instances) I’ve seen since John Gabriel Borkman. My God, when they get behind closed doors, the vitriol does pour, and it all gets so much better once the applecart is pushed over. Rather than doing so via a bunch of old family secrets a la August: Osage County, Albee does it with the rather surrealistic arrival of the lead couple’s best friends, who are fleeing some sort of unspoken terror (rather than creditors, angry neighbors, or unacknowledged children). What is this terror? Does it have something to do with senility? Is it existential dread? Are they having a bad trip? No answers are forthcoming and I found myself even more satisfied as a result. (I get the same feeling watching Pinter: the onus of responsibility is on us as an audience to figure out the play’s mysteries and Albee isn’t going to spoonfeed us an answer.)

In this one room, living room drama, we, the audience, are gifted with the vibrant presence of Imelda Staunton, playing Claire, the bad-girl sister of Agnes (Penelope Wilton). She’s a huge character: dressed in red, defending her right to drink incessantly (while not being an alcoholic), and making Agnes look every so prim as she says she has to apologize for Claire’s actions constantly. At one point she parades on stage with an accordion (very “Wecome to Hell“), deciding that as much as things have gone in the crapper it’s time to give it all a soundtrack. It’s perfect: while every other character at least tries to be nice and fit in, Claire really doesn’t care and is, in her way, the only voice of reason. I’d come and see it again for this performance alone.

Lost in her shadow is Lucy Cohu as Agnes and Tobias’s (Tim Pigott-Smith) daughter, Julia. Yes, leaving her fourth marriage is a bit of a “thing,” but Cohu doesn’t make her character very interesting. I think, really, this may be Albee’s fault, as the only real reason for this character to exist is so there is someone to blow up when Harry (Ian McElhinney) and Edna (Diana Hardcastle) announce they’re not just staying overnight but moving in. On the other hand, she is a wonderful character for being picked on, and watching Edna use social norms to reduce Agnes to shreds is just rather lovely if you’re feeling a bit mean.

Oddly, the show starts of so marshmallowy, with Wilton and Pigott-Smith struggling to sound American as they discuss absolutely nothing, that it’s hard to imagine it’s every going to go anywhere. And there are a million meanders (“longeurs” for the more hoity) as the characters talk about senility, AA meetings, and pet cats: really, they have very boring lives. But then there is much more to these late middle aged folks than meets the eye: a need for belonging, a desire to destroy, the desolation of abandonment after a child’s death. This is, in fact, the very kind of play it took the sixties to bring about: a show about people who have trained themselves to appear utterly dead inside finally confronting the reality of the passage of their meat machines through the soon-to-end experience called life and making us feel how it felt to get there and how scary it is to be looking at the end. It’s what we’re all going to have to do, even though we all spend so much time pretending not to notice.

Small complaint: amid the perfect set, the lighting was not right for the “car headlights” cue (always should be two lights, not a bar of light) and the “early October morning” in New England light was too bright and not the right color. Guy Hoare, I’m looking at you. Autumn light is very thin. Fix it if you get a transfer.

Overall, this is just a stupendous script with a strong cast, and even in my crappy, restricted view £8 seat (1/4 of the stage not visible), I loved it fron start to finish (well, from about 10 minutes in until the finish). It’s a great representative of the kind of realistic theater London does perfectly. Unsurprisingly, it is now sold out, but I advise making the effort to get returns for Staunton’s scintillating performance alone.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, June 3rd, 2011. It runs until July 2nd. Be advised the show runs a full three hours so easy on the pre-show drinking – that said, there’s so much alcohol consumed on stage you’ll find it hard to leave without tossing one down.)

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