I've seen some blistering performances over the years in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee's savage and magnificent marital drama about a long-married couple at perpetual war with each other, among them Billie Whitelaw and Patrick Stewart, Diana Rigg and David Suchet, and Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. But I don't think I've ever been quite so shaken to the core and wrung out to dry as I was while watching the utterly ferocious Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill slugging it out for nine rounds as they weaponise the power of words against each other -- and the younger couple they invite over for late night drinks and draw unwittingly and remorselessly into their excruciating games.
The power of it, though, comes not just from the savagery with which they play them -- and how the implicate and compromise their guests -- but also the desperation and humanity of co-dependency that underpins it.
And Imelda Staunton -- whose speciality as an actress is to expose raw, undiluted feelings with a naked transparency that makes them palpable -- is both frightened and frightening as Martha, just as she was as Momma Rose in Gypsy: she lets you see into the very soul of the character. She is stunningly matched by Conleth Hill's playful but no less damaged and damaging George.
Their guests are also superbly taken by the strutting blonde boy wonder of Luke Treadaway, who at just 28 is an ambitious new arrival in the biology department of the University where the play is set, and Imogen Poots as his wife Honey. James Macdonald orchestrates the fierce, shifting interplay between them with an all-too-plausible sense of shocking reality.
These may be games they are playing, but they have a horrible, even heartbreaking, truth. Producer Sonia Friedman has just received a record 31 Olivier nominations for her productions over the last year; she can already start counting on nominations in 2018 for this. This is an amazing production of a contemporary masterpiece, with some of the finest acting we're likely to see on the London stage this year.
What the Press Said...
"Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill are both superb as they trade insults and toy vindictively with their guests in a first-rate revival of an astonishing play."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Imelda Staunton is on monstrously fine form."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"I think Edward Albee would have adored this show."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"James Macdonald’s precise and finely balanced production ensures that this modern classic still feels lethal."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard