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Dated 4th June 2013

By David Slater, NODA NW

Marital Bliss, Edward Albee style. Starring Chris Berry as George (left) and Katrina Heath as Martha (right) with Nick (Martin Cook) and Honey (Emily Coup) literally caught in the middle of the warring couple. 

NODA Review - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee

This seminal play from Edward Albee received masterful handling at the Todmorden Hippodrome theatre and at the very outset of this report, it is worth stressing just what a superb job all concerned at the theatre did with this challenging and important twentieth century work. Albee’s play looks at the disappointments of married life; the brutal and sometimes savage game playing and one-upmanship which follow from lives lived in a boiling and ever-present atmosphere of barely disguised loathing and contempt. Themes and ideas which would be explored in a much more oblique and abstract fashion by Harold Pinter on this side of the Atlantic and David Mamet on the other, Albee picks them up by the scruff of the neck and shakes them out of the mouths of his characters on stage in this devastating play. A fairly relentless evening of bile and false hopes, gamesmanship and spite, the audience is treated – if that is the right word! – to a thoroughgoing evening of deeply involving drama, leavened only by the occasional lash of Albee’s wicked wit. It is a long play and as such, needs careful handling in order to keep from battering the audience into submission over its long duration; fortunately, this production scored on every conceivable level and left a large house shocked, bruised but thoroughly entertained.

As the warring couple whose marriage has broken down into a series of spats, delusional arguments and unrealised ideals, Chris Berry and Katrina Heath excelled as George and Martha. Chris’s insightful and wholly realistic assumption of his character’s blighted peevishness and frustrated life of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations was a wonder to behold: his characterization was faultless and the acres of dialogue were mastered faultlessly. Here was a performance of towering strength: powerful, emotional, gripping and true. Katrina brought a blinding energy to the role of Martha, imbuing her character with a stage-filling presence, dominating and excoriating in her whirlwind intensity: a staggering and breathtaking performance which it would be difficult to imagine being bettered in the role. Both performers brought out the best of Albee’s dialogue, bringing the piece to life, really taking the audience with them on their characters’ tortuous journey through a labyrinth of false hopes, lies, fantasies, threats and counter-threats.

 As the freshly minted couple Nick and Honey, Martin Crook and Emily Coup also performed with razor sharp skill and really got under the skin of their characters. Martin gave a thoughtful and interesting performance, as his character initially is wary of the game-playing at work in the warring couple’s house but is inevitably drawn in and Emily showed that Honey wasn’t perhaps as sweet as her name suggests. Martin and Emily also gave superb performances which again left the audience in no doubt that here were amateur performers at the top of their game. In fact, the small ensemble worked such wonders on stage that it very soon became apparent that such terms as ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ as a marker of the skill of the cast were made wholly redundant, as powerhouse performances from all concerned made this an evening to remember and left an audience dazzled by four superb and deeply impressive performances.

Director John Spooner must surely have put in hours and hours of work honing and refining every scene, fully in control of a challenging script and imbuing every scene with a perfect sense of spacing, blocking and timing: every nuance and devastating revelation was handled with pinpoint accuracy and the rolling boulder of boiling spite which thunders its way through the play was paced just right as it crashes through George and Martha’s living room over the course of the evening. Particularly interesting was the way in which the characters’ shifting behaviour depending on who they were sharing the stage with at any given time was explored quite magnificently, really getting the most from the play’s notion of the ‘diad’ and the ‘triad’ in human behaviour, conversation and manners. Superbly handled and demonstrating a masterful intelligence in handling the source material, John is to be commended most highly.

The set was a great addition to the piece, beautifully constructed by members of the society, becoming almost a silent and ever-present observer to the evening’s verbal jousting and emotional upheavals, it worked well and was yet another impressive factor of the production. The whole team didn’t miss a beat in creating something special and worthwhile.

My heartfelt thanks go to all at Todmorden Hippodrome for delivering such a high quality of entertainment on such a regular basis: as we know, it’s an easy thing to do in these straitened times to fill up the dramatic calendar with easy crowd-pleasing shows to fill the coffers and keep a theatre’s head above water financially. All the more impressive is a society which can find the right balance between producing thoughtful and intelligent pieces of dramatic entertainment such as this and keeping the wolf from the door: Todmorden seem to have found the key to both financial well-being and artistic honesty and long may they continue.