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  The Theatreguide.London Review


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Trafalgar Studios Spring 2009

Edward Albee's 1962 drama is one of the handful of greatest plays ever written by an American, and this production features one consistently brilliant performance and three others that gradually rise to excellence.

If that weren't enough, staging it in a small studio theatre gives this daring psychological dissection an immediacy and intensity few conventional productions could approach.

Albee's George and Martha have become as iconic dramatic figures as Willy Loman and Blanche DuBois, archetypes of a human experience at first alienating and repellent but gradually, through the playwright's genius, made recognisable and sympathetic.

The playwright had the courage to put onstage a couple whose lives have been defined by disappointment and failure, and who have chosen, rather than succumbing, to face that pain by living life at full tilt. Their constant sniping at each other is a way to keep themselves awake, operating at full throttle in order to fight their demons with all they've got.

And by forcing us to admit a shared humanity in that experience, Albee guides us to recognise that their fight is a heroic one and that no coping mechanism that helps you make it through the night is to be disdained.

His exposure of what seems at first a diseased marriage but proves to be far more complex and life-affirming is one of those great pieces of stage writing (like a few of Tennessee Williams's or August Wilson's) that leaves you on a contact high from the sheer exuberance of its language and operatic intensity of its passions.

And, by the way, it is also frequently very funny.

The role of Martha is the flashier one, and actresses in other productions have often dominated the play. But here, in part because Tracey Childs takes a while to warm up, and in part because Matthew Kelly (yes, as in 'Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be....') fully inhabits George from the first minute, it is his that becomes the star role, controlling and shaping the evening.

Kelly lets us see the middle-aged man with all the outward signs of surrender to failure, right down to being hunched over under the weight of his own inadequacy. But the eyes are always alive, warning us that the man is always thinking - far faster and more inventively than anyone else - ready to seize any tool or weapon laid in his path by the others. Kelly also skilfully exploits all the comedy in his role, so that he seems to have all the best lines.

My sole criticism of his brilliant performance is that he sometimes seems to be playing George twenty years too old, more like a grumpy but sharp-as-a-tack seventy year old than a beaten-down late-forties.

Tracey Childs, as I said, is slower to find Martha's emotional core, racing through her lines in the opening acts, without much hint of the passion or pain behind them. But she comes fully into her own in the extraordinary Third Act, rising fully to Kelly's level and carrying the play to near-operatic heights.

Mark Farrelly gives us a darker and more active Nick than we may be accustomed to, clearly a hustler on the make from the start. It works, making him a little closer to an even match for George, and the several scenes between the two men, in which they develop a kind of bond through their verbal sparring, are the strongest in the first half of the play. Like Tracy Childs, Louise Kempton takes a while to find Honey, never quite sure exactly how dippy or how drunk she is, but like Childs she does get there by the final act.

The fact that the two women are noticeably slower to find their characters and their dramatic power than the men may be partly the fault of director Andrew Hall. But if we blame him for that, we must credit him for getting them there eventually. And he must also win praise for guiding all four actors to performances perfectly tuned to the intimacy of a 100-seat studio.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - Trafalgar 2009