Dame Maggie Smith (pictured) returned to the West End last night (20 March 2007, previews from 3 March) to take the title role in Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque at the Theatre Royal Haymarket (See News, 24 Nov 2006).

The new production, directed by Anthony Page, marks the UK premiere of Albee’s 1980 play, which lasted only 12 performances on Broadway after a savage review in the New York Times. The director, star and playwright have collaborated before: Page directed Smith in Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1966) at the Haymarket in 1997 and in Albee’s Three Tall Women at Wyndham’s in 1994. (Page also directed the recent multi award-winning, Kathleen Turner-led revival of Albee’s best known play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, on Broadway and, last year, in the West End.) Smith was last seen in the West End, again at the Haymarket, in the 2002 world premiere of David Hare’s The Breath of Life.

In The Lady from Dubuque, a party at which three couples have been playing 20 Questions ends when Jo, the hostess who is dying of cancer, can no longer bear her pain. Afterwards, a mysterious woman, the “lady from Dubuque” (Smith), who claims to be the estranged mother of the hostess, arrives and raises more difficult questions. The Lady from Dubuque is designed by Hildegard Bechtler and produced in the West End by Robert Fox, Elizabeth McCann and the Shubert Organization. It runs for a limited three-month season to 9 June.

Overnight critics unanimously praised Smith’s performance, and generally enjoyed the work of the whole company – which also includes Catherine McCormack, Glenn Fleshler, Robert Sella, Peter Francis James, Vivienne Benesch, Jennifer Regan, and Smith’s real-life son, Chris Larkin. Most also thought highly of the play, which they said was “intriguing” and “entertaining”, though some felt that Albee’s messages were too jumbled to make a coherent point. Further, the entrance of the production’s star came so late in the play (just before the interval), it would challenge the patience of even the most dedicated fans.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) – Edward Albee’s bleak, sardonic comedy, which closed after a dozen performances on Broadway in 1980, is a bold choice of play in the West End…. Anthony Page’s brilliantly cast, superbly acted production – Dame Maggie does not take a solo call but leads the line at the end – also removes a potentially intimidating air of mystery by playing the piece entirely for real, with no Gothic extravagance or self-consciousness…. The first act is a classic alcoholic shindig in the Albee land of Connecticut Yankees, magnificently designed (by Hildegard Bechtler) as an all-white, split-level modernist suburban palazzo…. There follows a macabre dialogue between Sam and Jo about life after her death from cancer; as Sam carries her upstairs in throes of agony, Jo pointedly remarks that it’s been easier to get her into bed before. This sort of grim acidity is mother’s milk to Dame Maggie, of course…. Smith is as gloriously elegant as ever… She resists all temptation to play a sort of Coral Browne grandeur, humanising the dialogue to the point of naturalistic comedy. Her speech about dying on a beach is suddenly moving, and you realise that, if the lady is indeed an angel of death, she is also the figure of comfort and succour we should all hope to find once the physical terrors and psychological fears have been endured.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) - “Seeing (the play) now in London in Anthony Page's silk-smooth production, I was simultaneously tantalised, intrigued, and entertained…. Albee's cryptic jeremiad about the state of the nation is delivered with immense style. Maggie Smith, enigmatic in black as the lady from Dubuque, perfectly blends choric irony with compassion for the dying. Catherine McCormack as Jo also displays the rancorous honesty of the mortally sick. And, in a predominantly American cast, there is good work from Peter Francis James as the heroine's sardonic chum, Glenn Fleshler as the embodiment of populist prejudice, and Robert Sella as the loving husband whose opening question of ‘Who am I?’ echoes through the evening. Given the character's name is Sam, it may not be fanciful to see the symbol of an America unsure of its true identity and set on a course of irreparable decline. But the great thing about a play in which nothing is ever resolved is that Albee leaves the audience the dignity of interpretative choice.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent - “This belated London premiere, though spirited and stylish, is not going to persuade many people that The Lady from Dubuque is an Albee gem rescued from unjust neglect. The piece leaves us waiting for the star's entrance until about a minute before the interval. Put it this way: if you're a fan who would crawl through the desert to watch Maggie Smith perform, after sitting through the first act of this play, you may well think that you have…. Smith has a lot of sly fun with the role, seamlessly combining an air of mischievous ladylike… with quizzical hints of implacable purpose and metaphysical depth (‘Oh, we exist. Worry about yourself,’ she majestically informs the distraught Sam). She also forms a delectable double-act with Peter Francis James' hilariously pukka and punctilious Oscar, who flashes a wickedly subversive smile as he sends up white prejudices about blacks. For the play to work, though, we would have to care about Jo and Sam in the first place. But the opening act makes this well-nigh impossible.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “It is Maggie Smith's undimmed allure rather than Albee's play that will ensure The Lady from Dubuque, in Anthony Page's otherwise poorly acted production, lasts…. Dame Maggie discards most of her fabulous bag of comic manners and mannerisms to become the mysterious Lady, Elizabeth, radiant with wintry compassion and a flair for mocking disdain…. Jo chills the atmosphere by referring to death as if it were a permanent houseguest. She even encourages a bitchy atmosphere of back-biting and insults, chiefly directed against her old friend, Vivienne Benesch's innocuous Lucinda, and Glenn Fleshler's caricature red-neck Fred. Only with the appearance of Dame Maggie's Elizabeth, who wears a dark-blue suit, pearls and an expression of almost sinister, smiling serenity does the play take off…. Unfortunately, Albee frames the play within repetitive, flippant inconsequential conversation-pieces for Sam, Jo and their friends who remain faint, outline figures, particularly rather camp male ones. The production's practical problem is that Robert Sella cannot manage Sam's weeping collapses or convey his emotional breakdown, while Albee leaves too many big questions floating portentously in the air.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell