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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Lightning Play
Almeida Theatre Winter 2006-2007

In 1962 Edward Albee wrote Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in which an unhappily married couple spend a drink-sodden night sniping at a younger couple and at each other, ultimately exposing a dark secret about a child as well as the emptiness of their lives and the odd sort of courage it takes to go on living them. It is one of the four or five best plays ever written by an American.

And now Charlotte Jones has written the exact same play, down to the secret child, and it is not one of the four or five best plays written this month.

Oh, there are cosmetic differences. The child secret is a different one, there are three couples at the party (a couple of brief flashbacks introduce two other characters and show that something we've just been told is a lie), and there's a haunted television set (It's Halloween) showing one character images of the past. But it's essentially a rewrite of Albee, and an empty one.

Max and Harriet are an affluent middle-aged couple. He ghost-writes the autobiographies of shallow celebrities, and she spends his money. They've been trapped into entertaining an old school friend of their daughter, now married and very pregnant, along with Max's oldest friend Eddie and the ditzy woman who picked him up on Hampstead Heath.

What starts as the uneasiness of a group of mainly strangers who don't really want to be there degenerates into catty and then vicious attacks - of Max and Harriet at each other, of Harriet at Eddie, of the increasingly drunken Max at everyone in turn, of some of them at Max in retaliation.

Half the truths exposed are stolen from Albee (Guess which wife is adultrous and which secretly hates sex), and all are reduced to meaningless soap opera cliches.

Some of it - not enough - is sufficiently witty to generate laughter in the audience. But where the bitchiness of Albee's characters was gradually shown to be both the product of a deep existential pain and a way of keeping themselves at full energy to fight their demons, Jones' characters just get more empty, ordinary and soap opera-ish with each passing minute.

There are attempts to suggest some deeper reverberations to all this. Max and Harriet's daughter is off blocking bulldozers in Palestine, though that is eventually shown to have domestic, rather than political implications. There is some talk of the search for one's true self - Max writes other people's autobiographies, Eddie was briefly a monk until he looked deep into his soul and couldn't find it - but it goes nowhere, as does the attempt to generate some symbolic power out of the expensive TV set Max just bought or expensive rug Harriet is buying.

A cast of uniformly uncomfortable and unhappy-looking actors need not be named as the author and director Anna Mackmin share the blame. Mackmin repeatedly leaves her actors stranded on stage, most of them lined up in a silent row while one of them rants or two snipe at each other.

You never get the sense of the other characters actually listening to what's being said, just of actors turned off until a sudden silence reminds one of them that it is his or her turn to go off on a totally unconnected rant of their own, during which the others remain in standby mode.

Yes, there are laughs, though generally of the sort that embarrass you immediately after, when you realise how cheaply you were manipulated. No, there is nothing deeper than the surface story and characters, and they never escape the narrow range between unattractive and banal.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Lightning Play - Almeida 2006