Theatre Review - 'A Delicate Balance'

Posted by Alexander Hay

House guests bring havoc

With house guests like these... A Delicate Balance soon becomes precarious

A revealing journey into the icy wasteland of the human heart is provided by Edward Albee in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Delicate Balance which has opened in a first-rate new production directed by James Macdonald at the Almeida Theatre, London.

The action is set in the luxurious home of an East Coast family. Urban socialites Agnes and Tobias appear to inhabit a glamorous world of drinks, parties and social clubs. Yet there is undoubtedly pain in their lives. They lost a son in infancy and their 36-year-old daughter has just returned home after her fourth marriage has hit the rocks. 

Meanwhile the constant presence of Agnes' alcoholic younger sister and the unexpected late-night arrival of some close friends who have been seized by a sudden inexplicable terror begin to expose the fragility of the life they lead. As things become increasingly claustrophobic, the characters battle with their fear of stepping into the real world, opting instead for the familiarity of their own drawing room.

This play was written in 1966, four years after Albee's most well known work Who's Afraid of Virigina Woolf? Yet it appears just as caustic a view of family and relationships as the latter. Albee's people here are teetering between being able to survive and being thrown into chaos, in particular the amount of deception they can maintain in their lives. 

He pinpoints to a tee the rigidity and ultimate paralysis which afflicts those who settle in too easily, waking up one day to discover that all the choices they have avoided no longer give them any freedom of choice.

Albee never tries to explain the secret terror that lurks beneath the bland exterior of middle-class lives. Is it fear of death or loneliness? It doesn't seem to matter, however, as it is the panic we all experience at various dark moments in our lives, sometimes personal, sometimes inspired by world events.

Howsoever if you think this must be a gloomy work think again. It is laced with Albee's acerbic wit - "Why don't you go on holiday to Kentucky and tour the distilleries?", Agnes says to her sister - which manages to defuse the anger and bitterness that lie beneath the surface.

Penelope Wilton, in one of her best performances, brings a steely authority to the role of the imperious Agnes, while Tim Piggott-Smith is initially bemused, then cracks under pressure, as her husband and Imelda Staunton, prone to biting put-downs and impromptu playing on the accordion, impresses as the alcoholic sister. Strong support is provided by Lucy Cohu as the recently divorced daughter and Diana Hardcastle and Ian McElhinney as the friends from hell.

An unforgettable evening in the theatre, then, and richly deserving a West End transfer.

Plays until July 2

Box office: 0207 359 4404

Press: Premier PR 0207 292 8330

By Laurence Green

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Alexander Hay

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