I admit that I was taken aback at seeing Imelda Staunton playing a sexually voracious, middle aged lush, provocatively thrusting her pert, uplifted breasts towards a startled Luke Treadaway in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
I’m sure her husband, Downton Abbey’s Mr Carson, actor Jim Carter, thinks she’s a real firecracker at home but I’ve never seen her play an overtly and aggressively sexual character, unlike the sizzling Kathleen Turner who made the part her own in the West End in 2006.
She’s one of this country’s most riveting character actors, but here she is, on the stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre, squeezed into figure hugging cigarette pants and transparent top, snogging the pants off Mr T. Well, I was aghast.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee’s incendiary drama about vociferous and tempestuous marital discord in academia, opened last week in the West End and endorses, if any endorsement was necessary, just what a versatile actress Ms Staunton is.
It is an emotionally draining show. More than three hours are spent listening to Staunton’s profoundly disappointed and frustrated Martha ripping her poor husband, George to shreads. She goes for the jugular in the first 30 seconds and doesn’t let up until the final scene when, exhausted, she sits cosseted in her husband’s arms.
I couldn’t help but wonder if Albee imagined the pair doing this every night and, if so, how either was still alive. Surely he’d have blown her brains out by now – or got a divorce at the very least?
How could any couple maintain this intense and toxic level of hatred for any length of time, much less 23 years of marriage? Her vitriolic tongue-lashing, the sadistic psychological one-upmanship, is excruciatingly painful to watch.
She is the spoilt daughter of an Ivy League East Coast university head who mapped out her life early on and is now reaping the colossal failure of any of it coming true.
Set in the 1960s, Martha’s ambitious plans were for her to marry a thrusting young academic, he become the head of his department and then, ultimately, take over the running of the college from her father.
But George never rose to the top. He stayed firmly in the history department and not head of it. He never developed the killer instinct, networking skills or ambition, to fulfil his wife’s grand plan.
So the pair spend every night, wearing each other down, drinking the bar dry and, in George’s case, being subjected to the most vile torrent of verbal abuse from his wife.
On this particular night they have been wining and dining with daddy and the rest of the uni faculty. It’s 2am when they arrive back at their grace and favour home and Martha wastes no time in demanding a large one, on the rocks, before kicking off her shoes and berating the diminished George.
“You make me puke! She chides, her gimlet eyes narrowing. She’s a monster in the Bette Davis/ Joan Crawford mould. He complains about her whining.
“I do not bray!” She screams at him, the venom in her voice, making him retreat back to the bar.
Despite the time she announces that they will soon be having guests and, moments later, new biology tutor, Nick (Treadaway) and his wife, Honey, a “mousy little type”, arrive.
The night is set to be a long one with Martha eviscerating her husband in the front of the guests.
Albee doesn’t make it easy, though, because George, who ought to have all our sympathy, is crass, condescending and not particularly pleasant.
Nick is courteous in a stranger’s home but he is soon fighting to survive. The flirtatious Martha has him firmly in her sights while George, seeing the way the wind was blowing, makes subtle put-downs, treating the young man with undisguised contempt.
Nick’s wife, Honey, (Imogen Poots making an impressive stage debut although having little to do other than play drunk and pathetic) is way out of her depth so hits the bottle.
The stage becomes a battlefield with the audience acting as voyeurs to the demise of this most visceral and destructive relationship.
Imelda Staunton is mesmerising, explosive, loud, vulgar and unremitting. “Here I am, stuck with this FLOP!” she screeches raucously. “In my mind, Martha, you are buried up to your neck in cement,” mutters George.
But Conleth Hill’s paunchy, not quite defeated George, is equally superb and matches Staunton punch for punch. While Martha spews bile we see that it is George who actually holds the power in the marriage. His quiet, understated, performance is every bit as intense as his co-star’s.
Survive it if you can. Get tickets if you can. Thank the lord that you’re not married to Martha.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre is currently booking until May 27.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Imelda Staunton gives a masterclass as an abusive wife who is disappointed with her life and marriage in the incendiary Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.