Theatre: A Delicate Balance

It's a delicate balance...

There was something odd about this revival of Edward Albee's 1966 play A Delicate Balance, which is playing at the Almeida Theatre.

It's not just being warned upon entering the theatre to switch off rather than silence your phones as the slightest noise will upset the actors. It is that almost without warning, the actors will emote at such intensity that things become so disturbing and painful to watch it feels like you are watching someone's mental collapse. At one point during Wednesday evening's performance a mobile phone went off behind me and I feared that suicide on stage may have been next.

It is a play about a respectable middle class couple, their family, friends and perfect life. Although naturally being an Albee play nothing is quite what it seems and there is a secret terror ripping at their lives. Despite the drama, this is also a very funny play with some incredibly witty lines. But all the while you are kept on edge as you are never quite sure when things are going to take a turn for the worse.

The cast is led by Penelope Wilton as Agnes who is restrained to the point of being unbelievably remote. Her almost lifeless husband is played by Tim Piggott-Smith. Against this is Imelda Staunton playing Agnes's sister Claire who seems to be a permanent house guest in their home. She manages to provide the comic relief as she recounts such adventures as shopping for a topless swimming costume. As their daughter is returning home from another failed marriage, their lifelong friends arrive unexpectedly.

All the action is set in an oval-shaped living room. The round room was a somewhat distracting set for me as I couldn't help but keep wondering what shapes the rooms in the rest of the house were, and whether any house would have an oval living room given that it would lead to a lot of dead space. Given the importance of alcohol in this family the layout of the bar seemed unusual, but there was a substantial array of spirits, mixers and glassware for the various drinks consumed throughout the day.

Even suffering from jet lag from returning from Australia, this was a sharp and enjoyable play. The restrained and nuanced performances sometimes stretch the bounds of believability and can be at times frustrating, but the script directions are often very specific so it must be a difficult piece for actors to interpret. But then again acting in a straight jacket is part of what this play is all about... Go catch it... But have a martini first to loosen things up... And switch your phone to flight mode...

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