Friday, May 27, 2011

Well I suppose I have to blog about A DELICATE BALANCE... it's been over two weeks since I saw it in the awgoosed company of Andrew & Phil West-End Whinger (of the Vauxhall West-End Whinger clan). I was fully expecting, when we entered the Almeida auditorium, a sudden outbreak of whispering and fluttering of programmes-substituting-for-fans as usually seen when the fallen woman attends the Opera in films like CAMILLE or ANNA KARENINA... but no. Damn the chattering classes of Islington and their unflappable hauteur.

But all good things must come to an end... because the play had to start.

I had seen the play previously in 1998 at the Haymarket when the Battle of the Dames took place between Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins. I suspect I was too busy experiencing these two blazing divas to concentrate much on the play itself so retained only a vague imprint of it as I watched this revival, it was like watching something on a worn video and seeing vague shadows flickering of what had already been on it.

What I remember most of it was that in Agnes' opening speech she talks about her fear of losing her mind... and Eileen Atkins promptly forgot her words. She apologised to the audience and asked an amused John Standing playing her husband to start the scene again. He did this and as soon as she uttered the words "...losing my mind" she got an enormous laugh and cheer from the audience which she slyly acknowledged.

Needless to say Maggie came on all guns blazing to get the audience back with her and soon you could not see the set for cocked shoulders and flapping wrists. They were both utterly magnificent.

Here Penelope Wilton got through this speech without any problems - her stumbled line-readings came later - and away we went into Edward Albee's intriguing but in equal measure infuriating play. Well it wouldn't be Albee I guess...

Tobias and Agnes live a well-heeled WASP life in their tastefully dull large house in the suburbs where they spend their days drinking from an array of decanters and sharing polished, superior dialogue about the possible break-up of their daughter Julia's fourth marriage and what to do with Claire, Agnes' alcoholic sister who, of course, lives with them for the only discernible reason that it breaks up the days fighting with your dipso sister.After sibling verbal battles that echo George and Martha in his - ahem - superior play WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? the threesome's evening is interrupted by first the arrival of Julia seeking a return to the family nest - although one suspects it was never that much of a sanctuary and the sudden arrival of their best friends Edna and Harry who suddenly do a dog's hind leg and take the play down the ever-shadowy Pinter Alley by announcing they too have come seeking shelter as they have suddenly both developed a sickening terror of... something.

Far from being docile and invisible presences in the house, soon Edna and Harry are seemi
ngly laying down the law in the house and take great delight in turning on Julia - especially as they make a quick dash back to their house to pack more belongs for their lengthy stay at Agnes and Tobias' House of Fun.In further echo's of WAOVW - one of the characters appears in the living room waggling a gun about and Agnes reveals to us that they had a son who died at an early age, an event that was the turning point from which the family have never recovered.

After another act of polished yakking Edna and Harry come to the conclusion that they would never have let Agnes and Tobias stay with them if the roles were reversed and return home, leaving Tobias bereft of speech as he had just asked them to stay... because that's what friends do.One cannot doubt that Albee is a fine writer and the play occasionally comes to life but in James Macdonald's hermetically-sealed production, seemingly as airless as the mahogany-crammed living room, it is just too dreary and strives for a profundity that resolutely refuses to appear. After the first Act I staggered out into the Almeida foyer never in my life wanting so much to hear some Gangsta Rap. I felt smothered by the interminable yak of insufferable middle-class angst played to an Islington white, middle-class audience. And me. And The Brothers Whinger. And Sian Phillips. It was all I could do to shout out "Who the fuck CARES??" The audience also had that really irritating habit of braying loudly and eagerly at any line that had even the whiff of humour, collectively WILLING it to be a comedy.

Imelda Staunton plays Claire, the alcoholic sister who can blister the varnish with her viperous wit and damn, was she missed when not onstage. She gave it her usual abrasive turn, grasping every opportunity she could in her diatribes against the world, her sister and her family, or a snotty sales woman who she teases mercilessly. I must admit that I was fixated on her, not only for her performance but the odd shape of her bust. No doubt an old Playtex Discontinued was pressed into action but it looked like she had a bumper Arctic log under her jumper.Tim Pigott-Smith as Tobias seemed to be giving us an impression of Corin Redgrave - and made me realise how great Redgrave would have been in it and how Pigott-Smith seems to be theatre's answer to Mogadon, his speeches more often than not had me admiring the interesting thing the woman in front of me had done with her hair.

Penelope Wilton has over the past few years proved herself time and again as being an actress of great power but here - wearing Jill Clayburgh's old hair with a glazed, bland air - she whisked me back to the early 1980s when I would walk a mile in tight shoes to avoid her. The fact she stumbled occasionally on her line-readings really suggested the Duse of the Donmar's heart really wasn't in it.
It's certainly not the part - when Eileen played it she won the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress.
Lucy Cohu as the desperately needy Julia gave another uphill performance which again made me blanch that one day she will probably be giving us her Hedda Gabler. However the biggest surprise was the performance by Diana Hardcastle as Edna. Her rapid transformation from victim to tormentor was very well done from this actress who I have always found a bit mumsy.

The dead-hand direction of James MacDonald was disappointing after his masterly spare production of JUDGEMENT DAY. Laura Hopkins' design probably impressed some but I had to agree with Les Fréres Whinger that it suggested more a funeral parlour than a suburban household.

Needless to say the play has had raves so go know.

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