I know for a fact that I’m not the only northern theatre-goer who was so peeved at missing Kevin Spacey’s Richard III at the Old Vic that she went to see him in Horrible Bosses at the cinema as some kind of consolation prize (which it wasn’t).
Well, there are occasional causes for theatrical rejoicing north of the Watford Gap, and this in-the-round production of Edward Albee’s caustic drama is one of them.
Set on the campus of a small American college, the famously booze-fuelled shenanigans of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? take place in the middle of the night after a faculty party. Although this is New Carthage, the goings-on are straight out of Ancient Rome. And the classic Greek dramatists would certainly have approved of the preservation of the unities of time and place, as two apparently smug and prosperous middle-class marriages are torn apart in a suburban living-room over the space of three hours.
George Irving gives a subtle and under-stated reading of the hen-pecked cuckold, also named George. He shambles around like a stooped and bewildered pensioner, but when he lets his mask slip, and we see the look of amused self-satisfaction on his face as he manipulates and tests the other characters, we realise he is as scheming and controlling as any crook-backed Plantagenet king. And his symbolic click of the fingers as he casually kills a number of inconvenient off-stage characters illuminates aspects of the play I’d never noticed before.
Octagon regular Kieran Hill is fresh-faced and naïve as Nick, the new biology lecturer, but I missed the sense of the power in the room shifting when he challenges George in Act 2. However I loved Tammy Joelle as Honey, Nick’s infantile little wifey, whose quiet descent into drunken existentialism is done with absolute truth and conviction.
Margot Leicester is brave and exposed, in all senses of the word, as the gin-soaked, barely-dressed Martha. With her lack of vanity, and a surprising absence of malice, she makes Albee’s iconic character less of a monster and more of a disappointed wife than usual. This is the third time George Irving and Margot Leicester have teamed up at the Octagon and this is their best outing yet, as his mastery of Albee’s speech patterns and her extreme naturalism exploit the text’s potential to the full.
Mick Hughes’s lighting is surprisingly bright, as if the house were trying to push back the boundaries of the night. As a result the audience is partially illuminated and becomes drawn into the action - an alarming experience when you’re already so close to these social atrocities.
Patrick Connellan’s recreation of a Sixties living room is nicely done and, more importantly, unobtrusive. I loved the sly touch that although George’s bar is well-stocked with bottles, decanters, glasses and ice, it doesn’t include a single mixer; not even a soda siphon.
Director David Thacker hasn’t gone for a conventionally grandstanding, over-the-top reading of the play, but he uses the intimacy of the Octagon’s main stage to mine the work’s oppressive limitations and show its subtleties in detail. It’s also very, very funny.
With a true classic of the drama, a magnificent cast on top form, and a first-class production like this, who needs the West End?
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 15 October 2011
Tickets: from £9.50
Eves @ 7.30
Matinees @ 2pm
Box Office: 01204 520661