Review – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Harold Pinter Theatre

Friday 3 March 2017

mobile-header4Give Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? an award now (correct envelope please). Audiences have been banned from eating in the auditorium. The West End might be coming to its senses at last. Hurrah!

It seems like yesterday, although it is 11 years, since we saw Edward Albee‘s 1962 Tony Award-winning play (Best play, actor and actress) on the Shaftesbury Avenue with Kathleen Turner being both brilliantly hilarious and pathetic as the vitriol-and-booze-fueled, husband-baiting Martha. It’s one of the most perfect pieces of casting Phil’s ever witnessed.

Turner is American, has that natural smokey-voiced natural slur and she’s a film star. No pressure on Imelda Stanton at all. But then Staunton can do anything can’t she?

Adding to our hungry for the Woolf and the sure-to-sell-out casting is Conleth Hill as Martha’s husband, cowed by his wife until he stops being a doormat and returns her vicious volleys with passive-aggressive venom. Appropriately he plays the eunuch in Game of Thrones, for those who watch such things. We’ve been impressed with him and Her so many times on stage our expectations could never be realised. Surely?

George is an associate professor at an New England college. Martha is the daughter of the college president, they arrive back from daddie’s party having already been over-served and Martha has invited a young married couple back for more over-serving.

The victims/guests, biologist Nick (Luke Treadaway) and his wife Honey (Imogen Poots) are offered copious amounts of bourbon, brandy and front row seats to witness the frustrations of the hosts’ dismal, codependent relationship unfurl. It’s not just the drinks that are on the rocks. The bloom has gone from their marriage with no “taking respectful, loving space” for them. They play aggressive “Get the Guests” games with scathing put-downs, violence and humiliation. Wouldn’t a snifter-accompanying bowl of peanuts have been sufficient?

There’s more dirty laundry aired than even Trainspotting could muster. But which of the stories they abuse each other with are true? Expect allusions to fake news/Trump/Brexit/The Oscars when the critics are allowed in. At the preview we attended James Macdonald‘s often crepuscular production came in at a hefty 3 hours 10 minutes. We count ourselves as fortunate; 10 minutes has already been sheared off since the first performance.

Despite the punishing length and as grisly as it sounds, much of it is biting and bitterly funny. Staunton, initially doesn’t seem blowsily brassy enough yet progresses to become more hilarious, wretched and pitiable by turn. Hill is brilliant, more than a match, even his height and frame against Stauton’s diminutive stature adds to the incongruity of their relationship. Book them for The Jeremy Kyle Show forthwith. And Poots is terrific as one of the drunken spectators, even if she looks a bit too glamorous for her “mousey” epithet. Expect a lot of nodding from the Olivier Awards committee.

And whilst it was good to see door chimes utilised so effectively it was even better to see flower-throwing become this season’s latest must-have theatrical trend. It features in both Buried Child and Hedda Gabler. Here some rather tall snap dragons get as wasted as the shorter snap dragon Martha.

To add to the excitement, in a week of Academy Awards controversy, Phil and Andrew were seated immediately behind another Oscar controversialist; Vanessa Redgrave and 2 more generations of Redgraves. Phil had a very clear view of the stage as Vanessa doesn’t seem very tall these days and kept perfectly still throughout. Apart, that is, from being one of the first to ovate at the end and understandably, during the last act (which is, appropriately, called The Exorcism) spinning her head to see where a constant and irritating phone humming was coming from.

They may have banned food but when will theatres grow a pair and have curt and audible phone announcements at all shows and repeat them at the intervals? Having ushers wander around the auditorium with signs doesn’t work. Those who need to take note are too busy checking phones to notice. One of the ushers was even parading her sign around upside down at the second mini-interval. Glorious.

A couple of why-the-hell-not? titbits

Melinda Dillon was Honey in the original Broadway production. She played the mother of the abducted child in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The 1966 film version was nominated for 13 Academy Awards (only one shy of the record and is one of only two films to be nominated in every eligible category) including one for each of the 4 actors: Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis (who lived with Julia Roberts’ brother, Eric for 5 years). Taylor and Dennis went on to win.

To Albee’s delight, studio head Jack L Warner originally wanted to cast Bette Davis and James Mason in the film. Martha opens the play with the line “What a dump!” which would have put an extraordinary meta-spin on the line as it comes from Davis’ 1949 film Beyond the Forest. Can you imagine?

Whiskey rating


4 Responses to “Review – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Harold Pinter Theatre”

  1. Sal Says:

    Bravo for another insightful Whingers take on a play. Well, Albee damned, as they say in the American South. As mentioned, the decision to oppose what would have been the excellent onscreen casting of Bette Davis and J. Mason was entirely up to Mike Nichols, raising the question of why this routinely overrated director made so many ultimately disappointing films and stage productions. I recall a ridiculously overestimated Uncle Vanya Nichols staged in New York starring Julie Christie and Lillian Gish that got laughs in all the wrong places.

  2. Sal Says:

    Nicol W was by then permanently drunk and belligerent, Julie C visibly unhappy and out of sorts – George C. cruelly miscast, and Lillian Gish was a target of audience ridicule, as she had been directed to play her role as a nattering senile granny – the only one to emerge with a shred of dignity was Barnard Hughes, an actor who like Milo O’Shea or Joseph Maher, could survive almost any inept directorial misstep.

  3. […] West End Whingers: “Staunton, initially doesn’t seem blowsily brassy enough yet progresses to become more hilarious, wretched and pitiable by turn. Hill is brilliant, more than a match, even his height and frame against Stauton’s diminutive stature adds to the incongruity of their relationship.” […]

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