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The Lady From Dubuque

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 21 April 2008

We've all been to parties where banter has got out of hand and someone has said something they regret, but the party hosted by Sam and Jo takes this to a new extreme. Jo is dying and happy to lash out at anyone of her friends, while they try and carry on regardless with, as Edgar puts it, "your nice, average, desperate evening". Matthew Amer, who is always a delight at parties, attended the first night of The Lady From Dubuque at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

The first act of Edward Albee's play, which originally lasted just 12 performances on Broadway, portrays a classic alcohol-fuelled party scene. We're in upper-middle-class America – the bookcase is loaded, the walls adorned with modern art – and six friends are playing Twenty Questions, trying to guess who Sam is. Here's the first big question: does Sam really know who he is, who his friends are and why they are his friends?

From the cutting remarks thrown between the friends it is easy to believe that they are there simply because they always have been. With the party disbanded, Catherine McCormack's Jo writhes in agony as Sam ineffectually tries to help her to bed.

Enter Maggie Smith, the headline act of this ensemble piece, who after fraught interrogation from Sam, claims to be Jo's mother Elizabeth. It's a claim that Sam knows to be untrue, yet his friends, who have popped back in, are easily swayed to Elizabeth's viewpoint, especially when Jo rushes into her arms for comfort.

Robert Sella's Sam watches, restrained but unsupported by his friends, as Jo both figuratively and physically slips away from him, while he is powerless to stop her decline. His wailing and confused heartache provide a visceral counterpoint to the dark, bantering comedy.

Anthony Page's production, though it features Albee's asides to the audience, is intrinsically realist in its portrayal, with Hildegard Bechtler's set a believable middle-class apartment. This makes the appearance of Smith and Peter Francis James, as Elizabeth's high-kicking, well-spoken, black colleague, even more enigmatic. She is clearly not your everyday household drama character. Yet Jo's eagerness to find comfort in her arms suggests an acceptance of death that removes the hardship of fighting and pain.

Smith gives a classic dry-witted, matter-of-fact performance, as if arriving unannounced and claiming to be someone's mother happens everyday, while James provides a lilting and more extravagant foil for the theatrical dame.

Though the play's acerbic wit brings laughs aplenty, the tragic mourning and ineffectiveness of Sam gives a weighty note to this dark comedy. em>MA

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