Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

woolf quartet 

Uneasy quartet: Jasmine Hutchins as Honey, James McCabe as Nick, Julie-Ann Randell as Martha and Mark Crossley as George.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The Loft, Leamington Spa


I don’t like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

I ought to explain that it’s not Gordon Vallins’ latest production (in the Loft’s celebrated centenary: it was founded in 1922) which causes this. His cast of four – each and every one of them - does a splendid job handling Edward Albee’s difficult, unyielding, sometimes elusive script. One is full of admiration.

During those hundred years The Loft has staged a staggering number of plays and of playwrights – too many for me to count. It is hugely impressive. The standards at the Loft are consistently superb. Often, not just occasionally, their stagings come up to professional, or near-professional, standards. This quality makes them, virtually every time, a treat to witness.

They have staged an Edward Albee play once before – in 2007: Three Tall Women (1994), which won Albee his third coveted Pulitzer prize - after A Delicate Balance (1967) and Seascape (1975) - and was, as so often, quite a bold choice of play by the Loft.    

The greatest load here falls on George, the forty-plus University lecturer who holds, and hides from his wife Martha, a terrible undivulged secret (Woolf – is its usual version, Wolf: could it conceal a symbol of a threatening hidden truth?)

George bears the largest role in this Three Act marathon, and Mark Crossley, saddled with and undefeated by a massive (and sometimes, it feels, endless) script – not a single faltering - acute and sometimes explosive, achieves marvellous characterisation from the first moment when we witness his sheer boredom, escaping to a newspaper while his wife Martha (Julie-Ann Randell) chatters away exhaustingly; how possibly could one live with, let alone love, such a tiresome, impossible woman? Yet this hopeful characteristic declines; it is not used.

martha and george battling on 

 battle of wills with Martha and George

The climax of the play is George’s revelation – finally, to his wife - that their son (unnamed, unless at the end) has been killed in a road accident, driving into a tree late one afternoon. Although George does, unfaithfully, spill the truth of this appalling fact to a third character, it is the end exchange with Martha, and a few concluding moments which feel like a kind of resolution or reconciliation, that the play reaches its delayed, somewhat tiresomely built close. Just perhaps, this shared loss will bring this combating pair back together.

Earlier, despite their husband-wife unkindness (‘don’t spring things on me the way you always do’) and banter, George is in a sense a reconciler. At one moment he terms Martha ‘a remarkable woman’, and at another ‘a monster’, and adds I’m going to have you committed’; ‘I’m going to rip you to pieces.’ ‘You’re spoilt, self-indulgent and dirty minded’. Can this marriage possibly be reignited?

One thing to point out is the soliloquies. Each or most of the characters – George, Martha and one of their two hapless guests, youngish Nick (James McCabe) – have one or two gripping and gratifying solo turns. But it is the unwitting prolonged, penultimate, powerfully affectionate memory and recollections by Randell’s Martha of their son’s childhood that surely hits the solar plexus most powerfully and awesomely. To be honest, all these soliloquies in Vallins’ intense staging which invite or draw one in, has such a potent impact managing both to hold back the development, to great advantage, as well as somehow to move it on and lend it weight and dynamism. These were absolute highlights, each time.

martha sets her sights on Nick

Woolf might be the title but cougar is the game as Martha sets her sights on Nick

What of the other two unsuspecting visiting characters, Nick and his young wife Honey (Jasmine Hutchings); they are aged 28 and 26 respectively, and as yet childless; George’s sneery probing cross-examination of Nick about this surely relates to his own concealment, now childless himself. McCabe’s alternating fascination, attention to, absorption by George’s verbal and emotional batterings and notably unfair pumping interrogations are richly rewarding. He shows respect. He shows anger. When Nick is meanly pushed into blowing up, and he is compelled to do so quite a lot, it is perfectly believable, and it contributes to the variables and contrasts in this four-hander play. His care and concern for his wife is moving, and their close loving relationship is admirably caught.    

Yet even more convincing and entrancingly varied, and laughable – are Honey’s hilariously, and increasingly, drunken antics. They are at odds with her wonderful costume, which is a lemon yellow which fabulously underlines her glorious, touching innocence. She arrives in yellow coat, dress, shoes, even underwear. But it’s Hutchings’ endless movements and gestures, at times twitches almost, that make this such an affecting – and effective – performance.

She is constantly looking sideways for reassurance from her husband; she looks down when she’s embarrassed or troubled. Every part of her seems called into play: her by turns enraptured, puzzled and disapproving eyes; her shifting head, her twisting neck, her nervous crossing of legs or just shoes. When she gets increasingly intoxicated, her gauche behaviour is frolicking, whimsical and gambolling. In short, she is huge fun to behold.   

Inevitably Albee uses exits, or double exits – a common technique, of course - in such a way as to enable two characters to remain on stage. Thus, he creates a series of duets, and to a degree it is these twosomes – several tetchy bouts of George versus Nick, in particular - which one found compelling.


love's barbed bloom 

Attrition, abjection, attraction, perhaps even affection between George and Martha

At the very least, it generates telling contrasts in this four-character stage piece. At the most, these are telling and absorbing, at times almost captivating and engrossing, if a fraction riveting almost; but only almost.

So, what are these reservations I alluded to at the start? Especially in a play that has won such awards and eminent critics’ firm approval? I think the play is too long. Possibly far too long. There is not enough content to hold one rapt. The fact that the two secondary characters stay rather than leave is scarcely believable. Crossley’s marvellous George is a character drawn the same throughout: despite the twosomes, there is little variation in the text for him. He is harping on in virtually the same way all the way through.

The tension is not adequately built. The various exchanges take us away from what is to be the final revelation. If one thinks of Arthur Miller - All My Sons, for instance – in Joe Keller there is an underplay of risk and impending danger, of suspicion, apprehension and wariness throughout the play. Something is always about to go wrong. There are lies. The jokes ring hollow. And unlike here. we are always building, inexorably, towards its grim denouement.

Herein lies another criticism, for me, of this play. The more the tension, the more humour can help. Who’s Afraid is strikingly short on gags. Despite George’s sometimes acidic asides or confrontations, or such badinage as Albee intrudes into the text, the almost non-existent jokes (Martha: I’m necking with one of the guests; George ‘That’s good; which one?) there is a sameness about the whole story. Largely it is devoid of humour. And sameness can denote dullness. Who’s Afraid is a dull play, the interactions have something to offer but surely not enough. Kim Green’s interior domestic set, with red, purple and crimson flats, makes an appreciated impression. But here is a play, or a version, in which the same gradually more boring interior ultimately detracts.

What does work well, almost continuously on must assert, is Gordon Vallins’ careful and studied moving of his characters. At times it might be dubbed eloquent, for usually it relates well – not arbitrarily – to the section of text in hand.    

But despite the valiant efforts – and achievements – of Director and actors – no fault of theirs - this play trundles along, but never takes off. Perhaps the Burton-Taylor 1966 film contrived to create more tension; possibly a lot more; maybe the play’s 1962 Broadway premiere generated a lot more. The Loft, which one so admires, has - needless to say - delivered a plucky and audacious production of what, to me, and my apologies for saying it, is a flawed and, unhappily, unconvincing play.

Roderic Dunnett


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