Review by Daz Gale
You can always rely on the Almeida Theatre in Islington to provide some top quality theatre, but they have really upped the ante of late following their genius revival of Spring Awakening. That completely sold out run might seem like a tough act to follow - undeterred, they present to us a revival of Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs.
First written in 1952, The Chairs is an absurdist tragic farce centred on a married couple, known only as "Old Man" and "Old Woman" preparing to host an evening for guests where they reveal their message to the world. The original script has been revised and updated somewhat including a new ending that may prove divisive to purists.
Our Old Man and Woman are played by Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter respectively - a real married couple which barely scratches the surface with how meta The Chairs can be at times. With undeniable chemistry (which you would hope from a married couple) they remain on the stage for practically the entirety of the first 90 minutes of the play (apart from when they're running to get more chairs obviously) and manage to keep the audience captivated with brilliant portrayals of their pretty weird, exaggerated and unconventional characters. Kathryn is particularly fabulous, channelling eccentricity as she swishes her dress around and bursts into song randomly. Their guests are all invisible (Don't you hate when that happens?) so a lot of their conversations are left open to interpretation as we obviously only ever hear one side of the chat.
The pair are joined by a third on stage as Toby Sedgwick plays "Speaker" though is more commonly seen as their suffering stage manager who has to hand them props, remind them of props and get caught in the crossfire when it all goes inevitably wrong. He is left alone on stage for a lengthy monologue at the shows close completely abandoning any pretence about a fourth wall (which had long been disregarded) where he explains what should have happened, harking back to the original ending, as everything around him descends into chaos.
If you think a barren stage with only chairs filling the space sounds dull, you would be amazed at what they do with them here. The cast show what can be achieved with chairs, chairs and more chairs. In fact, there is so much chairography littering the show, it makes the same in Come From Away look simple in comparison. Inspired direction by Omar Elerian and design from Cécile Trémolières and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen keeps the action entertaining no matter how minimalistic it might appear.
The jewel in the crown of The Chairs is its script. Clever and unexpected rhyming patter makes it an interesting watch while slapstick and farcical moments ensure the comic relief is never far away, starting from before the cast even step out on stage due to a brilliant touch of their hilarious backstage conversation being played out to the audience. While it is played for laughs, the piece carries a deeper message with themes about the meaning of life and the legacy each person leaves behind ensuring even the silliest of moments is masking a deeper element.
With knowing winks to the audience, The Chairs enjoys taking itself out of the moment and looking back on the unfolding action alongside the audience. Breaking down the barrier between audience and cast allowed an immersive experience which helped me believe I was on one of those empty chairs... even if I didn't fully understand what was going on. Is the world ending? What exactly is the message? When exactly IS this set considering the updated references? Answers to these questions never come, and that doesn't matter. Its charm is in the unknown and how we as the audience can fill in the gaps with our own imaginations.
Unashamedly weird at times and slightly uncomfortable at others, The Chairs is a fantastic piece of theatre thanks to its clever and funny writing, brilliant staging and a trio of incredible performers. A play about the complexities of humanity, it may prove divisive given the changes to this new production but I for one loved it and consider it yet another triumph for the Almeida's continuinally impressive catalogue.
The Chairs plays at Almeida Theatre until March 5th. Tickets from almeida.co.uk
Photos by Helen Murray