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Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill star in Edward Albee's superb play

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Edward Albee' s ferocious study of marital discord and much more besides is 55 years old but showing no signs of age. I've seen it over and over, in productions ranging from the mediocre to the magnificent but never for a single second have I doubted the play's greatness.

It has an almost audacious simplicity. A middle-aged couple George and Martha, he a history teacher and she the daughter of the principal of an American university, invite a younger couple, Nick and Honey, round for late night drinks. In the course of an evening of heavy drinking and bitter, exposing games - humiliate the host, hump the hostess, get the guests - harsh truths are revealed and new revelations received. The final act is actually subtitled The Exorcism, which is a clue to the direction in which the drama is headed.

I'm not sure any aspiring playwright today would have the nerve to write a heavyweight, three-hour tragedy on such a slim base but the wonder of the work is that it contains within its apparently domestic parameters so many huge themes: the nature of reality, the strange manifestations of love and the onward march of history to name but three. Its central question 'truth or illusion? Which is it?' remains as pertinent today as the moment it was written and watching the play with an audience, many of whom clearly hadn't seen it before, you feel its power by the silence in the room, the sudden intakes of breath as it twists and turns.

Each new production is a recalibration, a slight resetting of its delicate dance, never straying far from the basic steps but subtly shifting the dynamics. Here director James Macdonald, apart from some echoey sound effects and an odd bit of music, opts to play things straight, with Tom Pye's drab 1950s set filling the entire breadth of the stage with overpowering dullness. 'What a dump!' Is Martha's famous line and that sense of disorder is oppressively felt.

As George and Martha spar and battle, often here shouting over the heads of their guests as they 'walk what's left our wits', their interplay defines the production. As George, Conleth Hill is a lumbering monument to disillusion, so glum and low-key that he can barely draw strength for the fights ahead. It's an approach that has some early comic dividends, but for me, he too often resembles the swamp to which Martha viciously compares him; part of her resentment of him is that he made her love him. Hill lacks even a glimmer of the charisma that might explain why.

The effect of this deliberate sluggishness is to make Imelda Staunton as Martha over-compensate. I have rarely heard an actress better capture Martha's awful bray or watched one more truly embody her pugnacious refusal to stop slugging. But at her best Staunton is also capable of capturing infinite sadness with just a clench of her jaw or a movement of her hand. On the night I saw her, the only moment she mined the melancholy at Martha's heart was when – tellingly – she was alone on stage, clinking the ice in her glass, and shaking with silent misery. As she quietly tells Nick of her love for George – 'George and Martha, sad, sad, sad' she finds an incantatory sorrow but other speeches are oddly underwhelming.

Although Luke Treadaway is suitably odious as Nick, the young stud prepared to plough the faculty wives on his way to the top, the stand-out performance of the night comes from Imogen Poots as Honey. With the smallest part, she makes the most of every gesture, hiding unease with desperate politeness, succumbing to agony as her dirty secrets are washed out in public, and finally discovering a kind of acceptance.

Her trajectory to understanding is more moving than the one Staunton and Hill manage to trace. For me, they just miss the mysterious poetry that Albee provides. But you can still hear a pin drop as the action unfolds. What a play it is!

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 27 May.