It is only three years since the West End hosted the definitive revival of Edward Albee’s lacerating 1962 marital punch-up in front of the guests (starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin), but Andrew Hall’s version – first seen in the Lichfield Garrick studio last October – proves there is always room for another look at this unrelenting, brilliantly written masterpiece of insult, humiliation and cruel acrimony.
Albee has always said that while the actress playing Martha usually gains all the attention, the role of George is the most important as he drives the play and makes things happen. Matthew Kelly’s performance is a revelation, stooped and hangdog, cowering behind black horn-rimmed spectacles, given to whiplash outbursts of sarcasm and bitterness.
His George is the man who never fulfilled his promise and has been ground down by failure in the history faculty of a small New Carthage college where Martha’s father is the president. Now Martha is six years older than George, but this important dynamic is missing from the production. Tracey Childs, best known for playing Lynne Howard in the television series Howard’s Way, is very good indeed but fifteen years too young.
This shouldn’t matter as much as it does. After all, Elizabeth Taylor was twenty years too young in the Mike Nichols 1966 movie of the play, and it was her greatest screen performance. But in the intimate confines of the smaller Trafalgar studio, it matters a great deal.
Childs is superb in the first two acts – her entrance for “party time” in a black cocktail dress, hair let down and décolleté like a rampant Medea, is stunning. But she doesn’t have the powerhouse disintegration in the third act of an ageing, blowzy diva like Uta Hagen or Kathleen Turner, and so resorts to washed-out winsomeness instead.
Still, it is very good to be introduced to her as a stage actress, though her credits go back twenty years when she played in The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Kelly. The young campus couple who feel the full brunt of George and Martha’s booze-fuelled battle are well taken by Mark Farrelly as the whiz kid biologist and Louise Kempton as the hapless Honey, hitting the brandy big-time after the phantom pregnancy is brutally punctured.