Penelope Wilton in A Delicate Balance
(© Hugo Glendinning)
Penelope Wilton in A Delicate Balance
(© Hugo Glendinning)
James Macdonald's compelling production of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Delicate Balance A Delicate Balance, now at the Almeida Theatre, is suitably measured, sensitive to the rhythms of the dialogue, and the richness of the language. It also sometimes feels a bit too reverent.

Agnes and Tobias (Penelope Wilton and Tim Pigott-Smith) are wealthy American suburbanites whose life seems to revolve principally around evening cocktails and their social club. Agnes' hard-drinking sister, Claire (Imelda Staunton), shares their house, and the couple seems to have assimilated her habits and outbursts.

They are less thrilled about the imminent return of their daughter Julia (Lucy Cohu), following the collapse of her fourth marriage. The balance of their home life is upset further by the unannounced arrival of their old friends Henry and Edna (Ian McElhinnny and Diana Hardcastle), who are so frightened -- of what they cannot say -- that they feel that it is only right that they should flee their own house and come and live with Tobias and Agnes. In their own ways, each of the characters are either retreating from the world or retreating from each other, creating their own cocoons.

To Agnes, maintenance of behavior and appearances are of vital importance, and she never once lets her mask slip, even in the most extreme situations (her daughter brandishing a pistol for instance). Claire seems intent on self-obliteration through drink, while Julia, having moved back to her parents' house, rapidly regresses to a child-like state, throwing tantrums when things seem to be turning against her.

Laura Hopkins' book-lined set is suitably oppressive. With its abundance of dark wood and dark leather, it's like a very well-appointed mausoleum. Her costumes are also telling; for example, Julia's regression is emphasized by having her change from a little black dress to baby doll pajamas.

There's a glorious poise and precision to Wilton. Her Agnes is a woman who weighs every word carefully and who never betrays herself. Staunton stands out, paradoxically, by resisting the urge to dominate the stage -- as she could so easily do with a character like Claire -- and instead delivering an altogether more nuanced portrait of a wilful woman driven to drink.

Cohu handles her character's rapid regression to petulant little girl incredibly well, and although she's sometimes irritating, she's not unsympathetic. Hardcastle is also impressive; there's a degree of reptilian menace in her smile and even her silences are unsettling.