Phil claimed to have “done some research” although when pressed to reveal his findings this seemed to have amounted to no more than reading the one-sentence listing in Time Out which revealed it to be “a two-act, three-question play”. Grateful that it wasn’t the other way around, the Whingers took a moment to quietly pray that one of the questions would not be “What is a play?“
Actually, by the time they were in their seats they had already notched up three (albeit mostly rhetorical) questions of their own:
- Could we believe we forked out £50 each for our tickets months ago and that yesterday were available on the TKTS booth at half price.
- What makes the Theatre Royal Haymarket think its programmes are worth £4? (Supplementary questions here: Is it because the posh, gold, raised TRH lettering on the front cover costs more? Stop printing them like that then; no-one’s the slightest bit impressed by it and everyone would really prefer to see the name of the play on the cover)
- How come the bins in the gents were already overflowing with paper towels at 7.51?
The evening was going most satisfactorily: we were already in full whinge and the curtain hadn’t even gone up.
Thankfully – in spite of Phil’s “research” – we were in possession of one vital fact: that Dame Maggie Smith does not appear for the first hour. This saved us from a potentially very stressful first act shaking our programmes to find an indisposition slip and trying to figure out who on the stage could possibly be her understudy (imagine the thanklessness of that job!).
What’s incredible is that by the time DMS entered not only had we almost forgotten she was in it, but we were slightly concerned that she might actually upset the delicate balance. Yes, it was that good.
Albee’s specialisation in plays where the drinks flow too freely and people get drunk is playing with fire as it reminds us of what we could be doing if we weren’t stuck in a theatre. But on this occasion (as in director Anthony Page’s recent production of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Kathleen Turner) the sparkling dialogue and top notch performances swept away all other concerns. So good were the performances that Andrew found himself thinking “so this is what acting looks like”.
Husband and wife Sam (Robert Sella) and Jo (Catherine McCormack) are at home entertaining four friends. The alcohol has been flowing and the party games are beginning to pall and everyone is getting a bit fractious. Jo has good reason: she is dying and frequently in great pain. The first act explores the tensions between the friends and in particular the effect of Jo’s illness on them and on her attitude to them.
The act mixes some humour (Jennifer Regan is excellent as Carol) and a lot of pathos, culminating (almost) in a most remarkable, painful moment as Sam carries his agony-wracked wife upstairs to bed. You could have heard a pin drop in the theatre (and if you did it was probably one of Phil’s hatpins; the ostrich feathers were sagging somewhat after the interval).
Anyway, it’s at this point that the mysterious lady from Dubuque (guess who?) appears accompanied by the equally mysterious Oscar (Peter Francis James). It looked like a recipe for disaster to throw such a mannered (in a good way) and magnetic star into this ensemble of naturalism but we needn’t have worried.
Albee’s play shifts into a different gear during Act 2 as Sam tries to establish who these oblique and eccentric (“Marx and Engels were the Kaufman & Hart of their day”) strangers are. Smith – “mistress of the triple take” as was pointed out to us last night by a former hoofer who knows about these things – is predictably excellent but wisely never steals a scene. Peter Francis James really impressed us too; he takes real delight in the opportunities he gets to address the audience, a device Albee uses effectively but sparingly throughout the play.
Albee asks an awful lot of questions in his works – Who is Sylvia?, Who’s afraid of …? and in this play the question seems to be “who are they”, “who am I”, “who are you” and so on.
What does it all mean? Well, it’s an existential enigma wrapped up in just under two hours of near bliss (Phil – did you copy that bit out of a book? – Andrew)(No, you overserved me with wine – Phil).
If Albee has questions to ask, he at least has the courtesy to ask them in a highly entertaining way, resulting in the Whingers discussing the play well after last orders had been called. Though when a friend from the world of showbiz joined them the play was soon forgotten as he regaled us with stories of the outrageous behaviour of some of theatreland’s biggest stars.
But back to the play. “Where else can you come for ridicule and contempt?” asks one of the guests of Sam and Jo’s hospitality . Under normal circumstances any sane person would direct him straight to the West End Whingers but, as far as The Lady From Dubuque is concerned, our cupboard is uncharacteristically bare.
Irrelevant and utterly trivial footnote: The wonderfully brassy Jennifer Regan was Kathleen Turner’s understudy in Page’s production of WAOVW? on Broadway.