Edward Albee’s 1980 play hinges on the arrival of an uninvited guest. Anthony Page’s new production hangs on the entrance of the actor playing that guest – Dame Maggie Smith – which heightens the sense of anticipation that underpins the whole play. For this is a play about waiting – waiting for death.

The Lady from Dubuque is – who? The angel of death? Perhaps. She claims to be the mother of Jo, a young woman riddled with terminal cancer, wracked with pain and chewed up with anger (played with searing honesty by Catherine McCormack). But she doesn’t meet the description that Sam, Jo’s husband, has given of his mother-in-law. Sam (a moving Robert Sella) reacts with near-hysteria at her arrival, but his wife falls into her arms with relief. And the lady, and her suave black companion (Peter Francis James) certainly seem to be agents of the inevitable, whose arrival eases the couple’s passage into letting go. Smith’s calm authority, wry humour and watchful stillness shift the mood of the play, which has until then been rancorous and volatile.

And this is where Page’s fine production scores. Page finds the shape underneath all the surface bickering: the gradual passage from rage to peace that suggests it is best seen as a psychological study of the shifting emotions in the face of impending death.

It’s not easy to watch, though, and not only for the right reasons. Page and his strong cast can’t rescue the play from its own clever-cleverness. It opens with Sam, Jo and their neighbours playing drunken party games that degenerate into vicious bitching: even if licensed by pain, these grow increasingly implausible and tedious. Albee also seems to saddle the piece with metaphysical and political implications that overload, rather than expand it. In depicting the approach of death it seems painfully true, but the framework is too ornate. ★★★☆☆
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