What a treat to see Penelope Wilton and Imelda Staunton together on stage. It’s like a free ice-cream on a scorcher of a day or a never ending cheese platter with no calories; all enjoyment, no guilt.
A Delicate Balance, the Almeida theatre’s revival of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, finds Wilton icy cool as an aging, regal, stately matriarch whose only role in life seems to be trying to keep her family steady. This is easier said than done with Staunton’s alcoholic sister throwing vodka-drenched vitriol around like a cocktail barman mixing hate-filled emotions.
Staunton owns the Almeida’s stage, frowning, scowling and strutting like a street brawler one minute, yodelling along to her idiosyncratic accordion playing the next. Such a strong performance could dominate proceedings – and eyes do still naturally gravitate her way – but the rest of the six-strong cast hit the same level. Tim Piggott-Smith quietly portrays a husband who has rolled along in life for so long that he has forgotten how to do anything else, which makes the moments he kicks wildly into life all the more touching. Lucy Cohu is believably hysterical as the 30-something daughter who reverts to childhood, and Diana Hardcastle is insidious as uninvited houseguest Edna.
With such clashing characters and Albee’s script which contains more barbs than a Streisand-alike convention, the acerbic humour is plentiful, yet the pain behind it is tangible. Everyone has been ticking along for so long that they barely recognise life any more. While the marriage of Tobias (Pigott-Smith) and Agnes (Wilton) seems warm and comfortable to begin with, it soon becomes apparent that they have been going through the motion for years. Staunton’s Claire medicates to avoid reailty, Cohu’s Julia can’t grow up and face the real world and, most tellingly, Edna and Ian McElhinney’s Harry run from their home, scared witless by nothing.
It is this nothingness that haunts all of Albee’s characters. It sits in the corner like a seventh member of the cast, grinning, waving, reminding them all that despite the wood-panelled room, the trips to the club and the wide selection of beverages in their drinks cabinet – they could open an off-licence with it – there is a hollow at the centre of their lives.
It proves, of course, that there is a very thin line between comedy and tragedy. James Macdonald’s production gets the delicate balance just right.