There is something exciting about seeing a production at a theatre you’ve never been to, with actors you’ve never watched before. Winterfall theatre has indeed been operating as an independent theatre company since 2010, and more recently operating from its new Blackbox Theatre 40 seat home in Kew and after tonight’s viewing of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, it is definitely been my error to come on board as a fan so late. Directed by Green Room award winning director Denis Moore (Harvest, Red Stitch), the Winterfall team have taken Edward Albee’s seminal classic by the horns and breathed fiery and passionate life into its characters and story. The simplicity of its staging is fittingly designed by Christina Logan-Bell who has furnished the abode of Martha, daughter of the University President and her slightly younger husband and history lecturer George with the appropriate essentials of their 1960s uni campus lounge room with a three piece lounge set, liquor trolley, reading nook, record player, hanging chime doorbell and a smattering of books. Added to this was the subtle yet effective lighting design by Rebecca Etchell, which added to the mood through deliberate extra focus when there were stirring moments of revelation and storytelling by the two leads. Yet the genius of this production is Moore’s strong emphasis on the cadence and power of the words that sprung to life from the page with such force from the outset, and moved at such pitch perfect tempo that the next three hours (two interval breaks of 10 minutes between each act) slipped effortlessly by as we became flies on the wall of this troubled night and left feeling completely intoxicated as though we had drunk and smoked and argued right alongside the players.
The two title roles of Martha and George are most demanding and were played with great aplomb respectively by both company co founder Michele Williams and Chris Connelly. Williams’ enthusiastic alcoholic throwbacks in between her seething annoyance (“I don’t bray”) and constant demeaning badgering (“Shut Up George”) is smartly juxtaposed with Connelly’s quiet crossword focus and borderline tolerance turned defiance as a sub human monster refusing to answer the door to their 2am guests; the newly appointed biology teacher Nick (Jordan Fraser-Trumble) and his young wife Honey (Cassandra Magrath) who have been invited by Martha upon instructions from her ‘Daddy’. The strength of Williams and Connelly lies not only in their opposing dynamics but in their real chemistry which was wholly apparent– there was such an authentic sense of trust, connectedness and embodiment that made their multi faceted interplays so pleasurable to watch. Williams’ strong intensity and domineering rigidity was complimented by her perfectly pitched drunken demeanour, making her barbs all the more taunting and powerful whilst Connelly’s brusque offhandedness and witty retorts really made their exchanges bounce along. These two not only really understood the snappy pace required to make their exchanges zing but also how to offset the dark undercurrents of this piece, something that often is amiss in other productions so that by mixing the obvious tension of the work with unexpected playfulness and clever black comic verbal interpretations they successfully created a rollercoaster of sentiment that was most engaging to watch. Even more impressive was how they tackled their solo monologues; Williams’ vulnerability at the start of Act 3 was magnificent in its colour and shade, her fragility was heartbreakingly moving. Connelly’s apt timing for the crescendo build of a story was superb, no word thrown away, all manipulation of his audience (both on stage and off) carefully controlled and delivered.
Fraser-Trumble and Magrath are most believable as the smart young couple whose initial shiny veneer shows deeper cracks by the end, the character of Nick being such an unlikeable cad, and Honey, an unstable flake. His aloof protectiveness is offset by her well meaning charm and their relationship trajectory is equally fascinating to watch. Fraser-Trumble treads the fine line between masculine assertiveness to confused bewilderment along with a dash of deceptive dysfunction. The highlight of his performance was in Act 3 which allowed him to shift from embarrassment to belligerence to regret all seamlessly within the final 40 minutes, whereas some of the earlier shifts had seemed a little incongruous. Magrath’s interpretation was most original, playing her stronger in the beginning and thus making her decline all the more effective. Her innocent declarations of “I don’t like playing games” and “I like familiar stories”, along with her sensitive stomach and delicate disposition endear us to her wholeheartedly by the time of her realisation of a devastating betrayal in Act 3. However, similarly, some modifications from how to build and blend one movement or line into another needed attention a couple of times.
The strength of this piece is how all parts contribute and create a harsh moment of clarity and revelation at the end of the final game of the night. Both the guests and we the audience were left appropriately in shock and wonderment at how everyone will ever recover. Their pawns leave and we feel exhausted, but it is in the staging of the last moments of the show where we see how George is really the one man in Martha’s life who makes her happy – whatever that means or takes. My only quibble perhaps with the whole show was the hesitancy in one or two of the physical altercations – perhaps too restrained or too forced to be taken as truly believable. But this is a minor quibble in what was overall a most excellent production. This play demands a powerhouse of emotion, and this ensemble delivers in spades. It is one version people should make time to see, and if this show is indicative of their standard of the last half decade, it is a company that deserves more exposure and season ticket subscriptions.