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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter, review: ‘Imelda Staunton brings stamina and remarkable range’

PUBLISHED: 08:00 16 March 2017

Imelda Staunton as Martha. Picture: Johan Persson

Imelda Staunton as Martha. Picture: Johan Persson

JOHAN PERSSON

Edward Albee’s 1962 marital warfare masterpiece has been magnificently revived by James Macdonald, exchanging blousy melodrama for taut, psychologically plausible theatre

Theatregoers might be afraid of Imelda Staunton, given the instigation of a snack ban at her behest, but the power of this scorching production alone should convince audiences not to break its spell with chomping.

Edward Albee’s 1962 marital warfare masterpiece has been magnificently revived by James Macdonald, exchanging blousy melodrama for taut, psychologically plausible theatre – the black comedy made much funnier and horror more affecting by locating the recognisable humanity.

Staunton, an indelible Momma Rose, brings similar stamina and remarkable range to Martha – daughter of the president of an East Coast college, wife of a professor doomed to disappoint by comparison.

She’s a prizefighter, compact and exacting in her verbal jabs, and exhibits a predator’s cunning as she circles their unsuspecting guests: young professor Nick and wife Honey.

In Macdonald’s fascinating reading, Martha and George wound one another, but have also, on some warped level, found their perfect partner. Conleth Hill is a superb complement to Staunton, hangdog and shuffling, ironic delivery dry as the Sahara. It makes the tragic escalation of their nasty but functional rituals genuinely heart-wrenching.

As the cocky science professor – the ruthless future to history professor George’s past – Luke Treadaway peels away the façade of this golden boy, whose marriage, like his hosts’, is already infused with regret, caught between bracing truth and corrosive illusion. Imogen Poots makes an impressive stage debut as Honey, her gradually crushed spirit, disillusionment and binge-drinking suggesting a Martha in the making.

Tom Pye’s subterranean design is an effective battleground, particularly in the hellish final reckoning. Martha’s primal howl will stay with me, but so, too, will the almost unbearably intimate desolation: rattling ice in the glass held by a silently weeping Staunton. Extraordinary theatre.

Rating 5/5 stars

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