A Delicate Balance at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Dame Maggie Smith is as addictive as the vodka her alcoholic character Claire swills from dawn to dusk in Edward Albee s . One sip of Smith s perfectly timed, acerbic wit and you want to start guzzling straight from the bottle. Sadly, Smith s time on stage is not nearly as plentiful as the liquor which flows with abandon from the bar to soothe the characters frazzled spirits. You leave the theatre desperate for just one more shot of undiluted Dame.

Which is not to say that Smith s co-stars in this excellent revival are in any way lacking. It must be daunting to share the stage with a theatrical legend but the rest of the cast refused to be cowed. Eileen Atkins is particularly riveting. Her portrayal of control-queen Agnes - sister to Claire, wife to the slightly bewildered but well-meaning Tobias (John Standing), mother to erratic Julia (Sian Thomas ) - is infused with a world-weary, upper-class iciness that pays homage to the great Dame herself.

For those who know Albee best for his seminal work, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the situation we find ourselves in with Agnes and Tobias may feel familiar. Here again is a middle-aged, New England couple, living with the ghost of a dead child, who rely on routine, martinis and a dogged form of tough love to get through the day. But Agnes and Tobias lives and home are further occupied by a few unseen servants, a live-in sister-in- law and a thirty-six-year-old daughter who s returned home after the collapse of her fourth marriage.

By her own admission, Agnes is the bedrock of normalcy in this chaotic household, but even she s thrown by the arrival of best friends Harry (James Laurenson) and Edna (Annette Crosbie) in flight from the grips of an unnamed fear. Much to the shock of the family, good old Harry and Edna intend to move in for good, seriously threatening the household s “delicate balance” which Agnes has fought so hard to achieve.

In fact, there are many balances to be struck in this storyline. Each character teeters between extreme choices in their relationships with themselves and each other - sobriety versus drunken abandon, sanity versus insanity, marriage versus divorce, friendship versus family, responsibility versus blame, regret versus denial. Some of these choices and the personal histories behind them are only hinted at and all are left largely unresolved. This irresolution and the characters steadfast indecision on matters of importance infuse the action with a melancholy which is frustrating but which, at the same time, seems to be part of the answer to their lives. Choices tilt the balance one way or the other; by not acting, by refusing to change, a delicate balance is preserved.

Terri Paddock, October 1997