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OTG's production of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance played at The North Wall in October 2011. Reviews appeared in Oxford Times, Daily Information (including two from contributors), and What'sOnStage.

You can always tell when someone has trained professionally

A gallery of pictures from the production is available to view.

OXFORD TIMES - James Benefield

Edward Albee, the American playwright behind A Delicate Balance, is best known for penning the 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virigina Woolf?, a seminal look at marriage turned catastrophically sour. With A Delicate Balance, he offers a similarly bleak outlook on American family life.

The three acts are all set in one living room, in an upper-middle-class household. The householders are Agnes (Mary Stuck) and Tobias (Nick Quartley), who are expecting their thirty-something daughter Julia (Esther Edlundh-Rose), to return home after the collapse of her fourth marriage.

But before Julia does return, tensions are running high. Civility between Agnes and her live-in sister Claire (Lisa Barnett) is diminishing rapidly. Claire is an alcoholic who, though still lucid and incredibly witty, is becoming increasingly bitter and failing to attend her Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. To compound the bad timing, the couple have house guests, family friends Harry (Colin Macnee) and Edna (Angela Myers).

In a manner similar to his most famous play, Albee creates a world in which the anger and hatred turn increasingly operatic, thanks to a lot of on-stage cognac and whisky consumption. Insults are traded and relationships disintegrate in a play that is pleasingly cathartic and dynamic but doesn’t quite feature the right amount of positive counterpoint to offset and contrast the catalogue of human misery on display.

And with the production running to about two-and-a-half hours, there is a lot of misery to observe. The men are portrayed as weak and generally emasculated; at one stage, Tobias mourns the loss of his long-dead cat in a particularly toe-curling display of self-pity. Claire denies furiously that she is an alcoholic, as she asks for another cognac.

Oxford Theatre Guild’s production was a rather reserved reading. The dialogue was often spoken slowly and deliberately. Only Lisa Barnett, as Claire, had a convincing American accent, and also she was the only one to really nail the speed that the dialogue should read at. Perhaps a watch of the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would have solved the problem; it needed to be fast. The direction, from Polly Mountain, was a little static and lacked the spikiness and menace of the best Albee productions.

Although not quite Albee’s best work, A Delicate Balance features enough bile and heightened emotion to make an entertaining night out. Unfortunately, this production fell a little flat. The result was oddly jarring, thanks to the stately nature of the direction, and proved ultimately unsatisfying.


DAILY INFORMATION - Gemma Callaghan (DI Reviewer)

Oxford Theatre Guild’s adaptation of Edward Albee’s play proved to be an accurate portrayal of the tensions between friendships and family.

Mary Stuck played the hard-nosed wife and mother Agnes, whilst Nick Quartley played the softer character of husband and father, Tobias. The pair struck a good balance between tender moments at the beginning of the performance - whilst their peaceful life is still intact - and bitter exchanges when complications appear in the form of their best friends, Edna and Harry. Agnes and Tobias’s life is thrown into a series of complications when their house is invaded with their daughter Julia, who has left her husband and when their friends, Edna and Harry decide to live with them unexpectedly. Tensions are clear between the dysfunctional siblings as Claire, Agnes’ sister is also thrown into the mix.

For me, Lisa Barnett steals the show as Agnes’ sister Claire. She has some poignant moments of confessions of alcoholism, mixed in with wit and charm. Lisa plays the role of Claire with ease and realism, proving to be a real comedy asset to the show. Claire displays bitter moments of hatred with sister Agnes, whilst has gentle moments with Tobias, portraying a rounded and realistic character, that as an audience, you can relate and warm to.

Polly Mountain’s direction was excellent, using the space to create division with the characters. Agnes and Tobias frequently sat at either end of the small living room, with Claire positioned in the middle of them, not only creating a distance between the couple, but also putting the sister in the middle of the relationship, highlighting Agnes’ jealously over her husband's relationship with her sister.

The North Wall was the perfect venue for this play, providing an intimate atmosphere to reveal the family relations exposed on stage. The small set of the living room reflects the growing tensions of the six characters trying to live under one roof, which is displayed with realistic, but sometimes over-the-top performances. An enjoyable show.


The subject matter of A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) is far from cheery: family life, ageing, alcoholism, existential dread, the limits of friendship. Nevertheless, the audience was laughing out loud for much of the evening.

Partly, of course that is down to the script itself, with its laser beam accuracy for relationships. "I wish you dead," says Claire to her sister at one point, "but I don't want you dead".

Like the more famous play, it all takes place in a living room, but so much is going on between the people on stage that you barely notice that the set has not changed. Time and again the characters hover on the brink of understanding each other, only to destroy that possibility the next moment. This Oxford Theatre Guild production is not only witty but moving.

Lisa Barnett as Claire – "not an alcoholic – I'm just a drunk" – sparkled her way through the evening as a foil to her deeply angry married sister, Agnes (Mary Stuck). Agnes bullies and opines, constantly overriding her sister, her ineffectual husband and her daughter, Julia, who comes 'home' having left her fourth husband. Agnes is not happy: Julia is pushing forty and Agnes's chances of being the youngest-looking Granny on the block are diminishing.

Yet by the end of the play we are given a glimpse of the grief and disappointment that underlies Agnes's manner – and begin to wonder if maybe she is right about her way of holding the family together. No-one else is managing it. This was a more subtle part than Claire's but powerfully portrayed. This is a production not to be missed.


Mordant Fancies

I ventured out along the Banbury Road last night to see Oxford Theatre Guild's production of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance at the North Wall. I guess I was attracted by the promise of a Woody Allen-esque story of neuroses, family discord and wit and I've got to say I was let down.

The words in my head last night were "the cast struggle gamely with an awful, dated text", and in the cold light day I can say my first impressions were true enough. I can't say what Albee was thinking when he wrote it: the characters ramble on about their dreadful lives while getting constantly drunk. I think it'd be impossible to do any justice to this play unless one were to burn every copy of it. There is no plot, no real emotion and the only drama is provided by weirdly discordant stuff like guns and dead cats. The actors do their best, heck knows, but do yourself a favour and stay in town.



Oxford Theatre Guild return to the North Wall for the fourth Autumn running, this year with Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, directed by Polly Mountain.

The themes of the play are sanity and madness, long-term relationships and family discord. Not unsurprisingly, this is not a frothy, light-hearted comedy whose ambition is to entertain, but a more didactic essay on the psychodynamic elements that run throughout a dysfunctional family. Although the description of the play makes reference to the comedic elements, these are few and far between - and when laughs come, they often do so with painful reference to the characters' life experiences.

A Delicate Balance is a challenging play to produce. A cast of six - mostly-unlikeable - characters bicker, drink and behave in a frankly ludicrous and unbelievable manner. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and where the writer should merely allude to the absurd, he has chosen to reference it directly. For me this undermines the central conceit of the piece: Two unwanted and unloved old friends Edna (Angela Myers) and Harry (Colin Macnee) turn up at the door in a state of fear - but for the characters to refer directly to the unnamed horror is a fundamental mistake and fatally weakens Albee's ambitions. Given the awkwardness and dated pre-occupations of the play, Polly Mountain's direction is competent, but lines that should flash in the dark, often fall too flat.

The most likeable character in this play is Claire - the alcoholic sister and perennial houseguest - played with great panache by Lisa Barnett. Barnett drives the emotional pace of the play with real feeling and is to be congratulated for portraying a flawed character with such humour and humanity. Nick Quartley as the failed patriarch, Tobias, delivers a believably bewildered man, skewered between the rapier barbs of his wife, Agnes (Mary Stuck) and his petulant daughter, Julia (Esther Edlundh-Rose). Myers and Macnee do their very best to bring some depth to their shallow and peculiar characters, but it can't have been easy.

The staging is very well suited to the North Wall's tricky arrangement, and Dominic Hargreaves - making his debut as lighting designer for the Guild - has lit the set well with believable effects and lighting progression as the story progresses from evening to morning.


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