Walking into the Harold Pinter Theatre, already one can feel the excitement in the air. Expectations are high. We take our seats, knowing we are about to see a spectacle: not only is Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? one of the best known marital dramas in the world, but it also stars Imelda Staunton – who returns to the West End after her Olivier award-winning performance in Gypsy. Needless to say, James Macdonald’s production was set out to be a hit. And it certainly rises to the occasion.

It is late at night when Martha (Staunton) and George (Conleth Hill), a married couple return home from a party. George is about to go to bed when Martha announces she invited a young couple back to theirs. What follows is a string of twisted games between the two of them, using the smug and ambitious Nick (Luke Treadaway) and the sweet and ditsy Honey (Imogen Poots) as audience, toys and lab rats. As dawn approaches, the games get out of hand and dark secrets are unearthed, finally breaking Martha and prompting the young pair to leave.

All Albee needs is a living room, some booze and four characters to paint a catastrophe. It is a brilliant play where the power shifts have to be handled delicately in order to showcase their subtleties. It is clear that Macdonald understands this play – it is not over-directed or over-stylised. Instead, his production is rooted in the ‘human’, and its capacity for ugliness. He creates an arena in which the actors can tear each other down, but keeps a firm hand on the play’s pressure and doesn’t let it explode until the very end.

Treadaway’s performance is convincing (if not slightly overdone) as the smirking Nick, but Poots has a more difficult task: Honey is often portrayed as a caricature rather than a fleshed out character, but Poots brings so much darkness, so many subtle layers to her, you would never know this is her West End debut. Staunton, unsurprisingly, is unstoppable as Martha. She is witty, cruel, hilarious and sensitive, never letting a moment slip her by. At the end of the play she breaks down, her mouth like a black hole, revealing the wounds she carries in her: it is a moment we will all be talking about for years to come.

But for me the one to watch is Hill. His performance as George is what really holds the play together. His willingness to play Martha’s game and then beat her in it reveals not only his brutal nature, but his fragility as well, a duality Hill portrays with great subtlety and laser-sharp precision. Every line of his lands with the audience, whether that is a well-timed quip greeted by laughter or a cold, harsh reveal that silences the theatre. His chemistry with every other character, even Honey, is palpable and tells so much about George. In this way, Hill excavates this man’s layers, making him anew, bringing him to life.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is so good, it is hard to do it wrong. But it is even harder to do it this right. With an airtight cast and a director who clearly loves the play, this is an unstoppable production.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until May 27.

Photo: Johan Persson