Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1966 play A Delicate Balance takes place entirely in the well-appointed drawing-room of Agnes and Tobias, an ageing, affluent couple who are seemingly content with their life in suburbia, except for their problems with Agnes’s alcohol-dependent sister Claire and their daughter Julia, a multiple divorcee who’s on the run from yet another marriage. But the couple’s relatively comfortable existence is rocked by the arrival of two friends, Harry and Edna, who turn up at the house unannounced and desperately frightened by an undefined feeling of imminent disaster. Over the course of a weekend, Agnes and Tobias are forced to come to terms with this crisis, and to re-consider the demarcation lines of friendship as Harry and Edna decide to move in with them. The situation is further complicated by the presences of Claire and Julia, the latter increasingly hysterical at the realisation that she’s been usurped from her room by the unexpected visitors.
Last seen in London in 1997, in a well-regarded production directed by Anthony Page and starring Eileen Atkins and Maggie Smith as the sisters, Albee’s enigmatic drama now gets an absolutely exquisite revival by James Macdonald at the Almeida. Combining elements of drawing-room comedy-of-manners with chilly overtones of existential dread, Albee’s play is a challenge for actors and audience alike, and to many, it seems, it looks like nothing more than an overlong, excessively verbose piece about that most familiar of theatrical subjects: WASP angst. At some level that’s exactly what it is, but there’s also a searching, visionary, philosophical quality to the play that transcends the apparent limitations of its scope. And Macdonald’s sensitive production, which plays out on Laura Hopkins’s attractive set (beautifully lighted by Guy Hoare), achieves a wonderful clarity and richness of tone. It’s a glittering, stylish production that still cuts close to the play’s dark heart, brilliantly capturing its contradictory moods. The thorny questions that the play proposes - what exactly are our “rights and responsibilities” to our family and friends?; how is the daily "delicate balance" between survival and awareness of the abyss to be negotiated? - emerge subtly as so many sad (and funny) refrains.
And it’s hard to see how the performances could be bettered. Always subtle and economical, Penelope Wilton brings a marvellous mixture of elegant imperiousness, intelligence and awareness to Agnes. She handles the withering put-downs with aplomb - listen out in particular for her delivery of the line “My pudenda” - but when Agnes recalls the son she and Tobias lost the mood is suddenly charged with deep sorrow. It’s a wonderfully rich interpretation. The hard-drinking, yodelling, accordion-wielding Claire is the showier role, and one that constantly threatens to become merely a comic turn. But Imelda Staunton modulates her performance beautifully, finding fresh details in her scenes, whether its lying on the floor with her leg seductively outstretched as Claire reminds Tobias of a significant moment in their past, or slipping her arm tenderly around her beloved accordion. Tim Pigott-Smith gives a brilliant slow-burn of a performance as the apparently passive, rather befuddled Tobias. His aria about Tobias’s relationship with a cat generated uneasy laughs and a few gasps of shock, while a late break-down scene is also brilliantly sustained.
As Julia, Lucy Cohu brings her distinctive presence and lovely Streep-ish inflections to a rather difficult role, finding real pain in a character who spends a great deal of the play (too much, perhaps) whining. And in support Ian McElhinney and Diana Hardcastle are superb as Harry and Edna, Hardcastle in particular moving unsettlingly from heart-rending vulnerability to the chillingly serene arrogance of the interloper. She has a classic mid-play scene with Cohu and her delivery of the line “I do sometimes [speak my mind] … when an environment is not all that it might be” is especially cherishable. Indeed, the entire cast handle Albee’s highly mannered, Henry-James-goes-Pop dialogue with a wonderful lightness of touch throughout, while evidently relishing its odd rhythms and strange digressions. The brilliance of Albee’s writing here is to keep the audience on their toes - you’re never quite sure where he’ll head next, and for viewers who get on the play’s strange wavelength, this generates an incredible tension and excitement. The playwright describes A Delicate Balance as being about “people [who] are teetering between being able to survive and being thrown into chaos.” And Macdonald’s stunning production is perfectly attuned to the play’s own very delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, philosophy and bitchery, craziness and calm. What a great evening.
The productions runs for 2 hours 55 minutes. It’s booking until 2 July. Further information at the Almeida website.