Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Tobacco Factory Theatres)

Edward Albee’s iconic play returns in a new production

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
© Mark Dawson

Two am is too late for a party. Well, it is if the state of Martha and George in Edward Albee's classic, Tony Award-winning 1962 play, is anything to go by. The couple, a university history teacher and his wife, invite a younger couple – Nick a biology teacher and his wife Honey – to their New England house to continue the drinking after a party elsewhere. Their meeting turns into an unadulterated mess.

That mess is both emotional and physical, as George and Martha (played here by Mark Meadows and Pooky Quesnel) play tricksy, psychological cat-and-mouse ‘games' in front of the guests, each trying to get a rise from the other. These games are oblique and we, like Nick and Honey, are never entirely sure what from their arguments is real and what's not. But it can't be denied that George and Martha's marriage is at its tether's end. It has become a violently unhappy cage, with the couple constantly spiteful, unbalanced and vicious.

Into this viper's nest comes the unwitting younger husband and wife (played by Joseph Tweedale and Francesca Henry); benign, not great at drinking (although certainly trying their best), with their marriage still in some sort of order. The play dissects what it means to be married especially when dreams aren't realised and social norms aren't adhered to. Martha, whose father is university president, constantly demeans George, referring to how he's not head of the history department. George on the other hand compares himself to Nick – how strong he is, how much he weighs, how impressive intellectually he is – and he picks apart the reasons Nick married Honey. It's all one big melting pot of warped social pressure – the results of what might happen if the great American Dream was never realised.

David Mercatali's production has a strong cast who manage Albee's constant, subtle word-play and symbolism well. But though the text is delivered with pace and clarity, there are a plethora of underlying themes – the threat of the Cold War, motivations behind the need for kids, the hypocrisy of the nuclear family – that just don't fully emerge. It's a text that's exceptionally hard to penetrate and while this production has a good bash at it, an intensity behind Albee's angry, vivid poetry is missing.

Quesnel and Meadows are fitful and robust sparring partners, with Quesnel offering switches in her mood and attitude quickly but smoothly. Meadows isn't the usual beleaguered George, he's more combative and angry. It dilutes the impact of Quesnel's Martha. Tweedale and Henry are good foil, they bend and fold to the older couple's whims.

The in-the-round staging, with designs by Anisha Fields, works well. We stay in the 60s front room, littered with books, coats and booze. It feels, often in contrast to what's being said onstage, very real. The low lighting, however, created by Chris Swain, and the occasional quiet bursts of sound, designed by Dinah Mullen evoke a creeping threat: an otherworldly sense of darkness.

It's a long, hefty play which is both painful to watch and at times very funny. Here it gets an admirable outing and it packs an absolute punch, but falls short of the full force it can wield.