“The one thing sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a sister’s ingratitude”
A Delicate Balance won Edward Albee the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes and director James Macdonald has brought it to the Almeida Theatre as the fourth of his plays to be performed there. Albee is perhaps best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and this play shares similarities with that work in its focus on the travails of rich urban socialites, their relationships and what nastiness lurks beneath their genteel facades but A Delicate Balance pulls the focus a little wider to look at an entire dysfunctional household.
Tobias and Agnes are a couple whose very well-appointed life of cocktails and social clubs suggests a world of comfortable privilege. But from the off, it is evident all is not quite rosy as we discover they sleep in different bedrooms, Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire is living with them and their daughter Julia is experiencing marital discord, for the fourth time though still in her 30s. Further complicating matters is the arrival of their best friends, Harry and Edna, who arrive unexpectedly, utterly traumatised by an unknown fear at their house, and having decided to move in with them. When Julia arrives back at the family home the next morning, having indeed split up from her fourth husband, to find strangers in her childhood bedroom, the battlelines are drawn as family are pitched against friends and loyalties stretched to their limits.
The action plays out on Laura Hopkins’ attractive wide oval dressing room set, complete with hall and staircase leading upstairs at the back, and never moves from there. The events of the play stretch over a long weekend, but it is ultimately less about what happens as the struggle of Agnes to maintain the careful, delicate even, balance in the face of the ever-shifting power dynamics in her house as the rules of society dictate the maintenance of civilities even in the face of outlandish behaviour and hardly anyone says what they are actually feeling.
It is therefore quite the actors’ play and with such an exquisite cast as this, I found it to be an utter delight, even though it is bleak and quite uncomfortable at times. As the East Coast society mistress, Penelope Wilton looks as different as I’ve ever seen her and delivered her precise, wordy, deliberate monologues with a wonderful touch. And the scenes in which she faces off with Imelda Staunton’s boozy sister are close to theatrical perfection – how these women aren’t Dames yet I do not know. Staunton really does make the most of her embittered spinster, unconstrained by society’s rules and so the only one who really speaks her mind, taking a vicarious thrill in unleashing on all and sundry but also suggesting the pained realisation behind the eyes as she goes too far, time and time again. She in turn has a great relationship with Lucy Cohu’s spoilt brat of a daughter, the bond between niece and aunt initially stronger than with mother, the implications flying that Julia is on the path to turn into Claire, and Cohu has great fun playing the daughter regressing to childish antics as she can’t get her own way, her voice remaining a thing of heartbreaking wonder.
As Tobias, Tim Pigott-Smith is also excellent: initially something of a verbal punching bag, quietly tolerant of his wife, sister-in-law and daughter and their endless talk but provoked into making a firm response as his house guests start to make themselves comfortable and when he does, it is with a hugely powerful emotion that is spell-binding. But most curious of all are the characters of Harry and Edna as portrayed by Ian McElhinney and Diana Hardcastle. Never having seen the play before, their arrival was a moment of near horror and the lack of obvious explanation accompanying their behaviour ensured that their presence kept proceedings as taut as a drum, Hardcastle in particular expertly treading the fine line between dark humour and psychological thriller that in essence characterises the whole play.
A Delicate Balance is beautifully judged, dark and unsettling at times to be sure, but never less than totally engrossing. And though I am oft-times teased for my predilection for dames-in-waiting, the evidence is right here on the stage in Islington, acting simply does not get better than this and yet both Wilton and Staunton are integral, unshowy parts of a truly top-class ensemble. Book now: this has to be one of the few truly unmissable shows currently playing in London and will surely sell out.