Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not Lady Grantham

Elizabeth McGovern and Dougray Scott in Edward Albee's play - Johan Persson
Elizabeth McGovern and Dougray Scott in Edward Albee's play - Johan Persson

More than 60 years after they first hatched from the mind of Edward Albee, making the playwright’s name on Broadway – with the on-screen double-act of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor sealing the deal in 1966 – George and Martha remain American theatre’s most famous warring married couple.

This moth-eaten New England history professor and his acid, status-conscious wife form a potent riddle of alcohol-assisted co-dependence. They bite and snap like enclosed tortoises, but retain a kindergarten mischief, as if vampirically feeding on their young guests, strait-laced biologist Nick and his ditzy wife Honey, who are enlisted in their late-night showdown of marital acrimony.

Though the play is of its period, it has never gone out of fashion, and though it’s resistant to meddling, it often mutates as a result of the space it’s in. I’ve seen Diana Rigg and David Suchet tear chunks off each other in the West End, while in the old basement studio at the Trafalgar Theatre, Matthew Kelly and Tracey Childs dripped minutiae of bile and anguish.

In the Bath Theatre Royal’s 120-seat Ustinov Studio, there’s intimacy but also enforced detachment, as the seating rises sharply above the stage. The trick here is to allow for enough theatricality to honour the zinging repartee, but enough normality to ensure we feel we’re in the room with the quartet – and it’s one that Lindsay Posner’s painstaking (three-hour-plus) production pulls off with aplomb.

The combined experience of Elizabeth McGovern and Dougray Scott blends presence and nuance. A household name after Downton Abbey, in which she played Lady Grantham, McGovern is to the manner born, draped on a sofa or springing about with frustrated vitality, baring teeth and barking commands. With his cardigan, spectacles and wounded air, Scott cuts a duller, more pitiable figure, but he majors in malevolence too, parodying Honey’s giggle and issuing hollow laughs. The ordeal moves through toxic rounds to a clear-eyed, cathartic tristesse, as the duo pick up the pieces of a trashed shared narrative about their son – the mood like a deflated party-balloon.

It’s their marathon night, but Gina Bramhill contends admirably too with the contrived, archetypally air-headed Honey. As Nick, Charles Aitken falls a few hulking pounds short of Albee’s “well-put-together” spec, but he blooms gloriously in a mid-evening mating dance of preposterous peacockery. Given that the play was in the West End only about five years ago, a London transfer may not beckon. Get thee to Bath, then.

Until Feb 11. Tickets: 01225 448844; theatreroyal.org.uk