Edward Albee reportedly made the decision to hold the world premiere of his new play at the Almeida after seeing the theatre s recent, highly acclaimed production of Who s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which transferred to the West End.
There are strong parallels between the two plays. Both feature the interplay between an older couple and a younger one and both dwell on the question of what is reality and what fantasy.
The Play about the Baby hinges on the attempts by an older couple, known simply as Man and Woman, to kidnap the baby of a younger couple, Boy and Girl. Or is it that simple? Does the baby really exist? There are overtones of Stoppard with the wordplay, philosophical monologues and the way the actors refer to themselves as actors. But, while the monologues are well written and sprinkled with some funny lines, there is never a sense that the play s going anywhere and certainly no dramatic tension.
The people to feel sorry for are not the characters but the actors. As the Man and Woman, Alan Howard and Frances de la Tour are superb, their monologues brilliantly delivered (suggesting that both of them could find careers as stand-up comedians). The best bits of the evening are when they are on stage together, although it s the quality of their acting rather than the writing that holds attention. As the young couple, Rupert Penry-Jones and Zoe Waites also perform strongly in rather thankless roles.
The Play about the Baby suffers most in the inevitable comparisons with Who s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In this new play, the younger couple are made to speak in the same clipped and questioning way as the older couple, while it is this contrast between the two couples that makes the earlier play so strong.
The language also mires the new offering in a confused era. In fact, considered side by side with Virginia Woolf, it is difficult to discern which was written in the 60s and which is modern. Virginia Woolf has become an almost timelessly harrowing portrait of a wobbly marriage; 30 years on, it still has the capacity to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
The Play about the Baby already seems dated. With its over-heavy symbolism, the naming of the characters and its attempts to say something significant while saying nothing at all, The Play about the Baby resembles one of the worst example of 60s theatre. In fact, if one didn t know better, it looks like one of the Almeida s least successful revivals.