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The party's over

Sparks can fly when people gamble with their feelings, as Timothy Ramsden finds in a new production of a controversial play

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Edward Albee. Liverpool Playhouse April 1-23. Tel: 0151 709 4776

The official party's over at the home of New Carthage University's boss. His daughter Martha and her history academic husband George host drinks for young science professor Nick and wife Honey. What ensues in Albee's 1962 play is a long early-hours slug-out of truth, lies and illusions in a series of increasingly abrasive psychological games.

For director Gemma Bodinetz, the action is like a poker game. George and Martha are experts, each knowing what hand the other will play. It is when the guests arrive that things become unpredictable. "George and Martha have a profound understanding and love of each other that underpins the play." This despite their mutual tormenting, "an elaborate set of Russian roulette moves that envelop the younger couple".

Martha and George are stuck. As she grows older her physical attractiveness faces its term, she has no children and while, as daughter of the university boss, she has power - and is, Bodinetz says, incredibly bright - she's not a bluestocking. Martha feels she cannot match George for intellectual capacity, something he uses against her. He has no career prospects. All that is left them is the destructive process of tearing aside illusions, down to the final truth about the child they have talked about so much.

Working on the play provokes a series of speculations: how would things have been if Martha had a child? How might the evening have turned out differently if Nick and Honey's personalities had been different, if they possessed a sense of humour, or could keep up with the older couple's shifting truth and lies?

Bodinetz believes Nick has a sense of humour and chooses not to find George's remarks funny or to become their target. For George, Nick is a threat from the first. Not only because of his youthful attraction, but as a scientist. The men's discussion of genetics (cloning and "That brave new world of beautiful people") is one of many ways the play reverberates in 2005; another is the contrast between liberalism and mid-American conservatism represented in Honey, with her preacher father.

This is also, says Bodinetz, a hugely funny play. The director needs to find the moments of lightness; there is a lot of humour before the guests arrive, but more needs locating later. She has empathy for both George and Martha, believing they have ultimately the stronger relationship - though the younger couple might have learned something.

As key moments, Bodinetz picks out Honey's sudden declaration that she wants a baby (something this fragile, cotton-wool bred girl had previously feared). And between George and Martha the late moment they finally accept their own fantasy "baby" must be laid to rest.

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