Hansard review – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the Cotswold set

When a character in Simon Woods’s play claims that the great mystery of our time is “the insatiable desire of the people of this country to be fucked by an Old Etonian”, the audience lets out a roar of approval. But, while Woods’s play is funny, pleasantly short (90 minutes) and ultimately moving, it also has the structural flaws of the debut dramatist.

In essence, we are watching a Cotswold Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The setting is the Oxfordshire country home in May 1988 of a Tory junior minister, Robin Hesketh, and his wife, Diana. The moment he returns from a trip to Leeds to do Any Questions, verbal battle is joined and rarely lets up. Robin attacks his wife’s laziness, alcoholism and leftish sympathies. She sneers at his privileged background, deep-rooted philistinism and enslavement to Mrs Thatcher. Diana admits that she initially adored Robin, “and the rest, as they say, is tragedy.”

If the play owes a considerable debt to Edward Albee, there are also echoes of Private Lives in the merciless banter. The big difference is that both Albee and Coward introduce a second couple to expose the self-obsession of their sparring twosomes; here, however, we simply have Robin and Diana for company, whose verbal jousting acquires a circular quality.

The significance of Diana’s preoccupation with the passing of the 1988 Local Government Act, which stipulated that local authorities must not “promote homosexuality”, only becomes fully clear in the final moments. What one took to be a liberal protest takes on a personal meaning that alters one’s perception of the two characters. But although the end is touching, it is not accomplished without an audible crashing of gears.

Woods, an actor himself, has the capacity to write good dialogue, and Simon Godwin’s precise production boasts two expert performers in Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan.

Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

Jennings has the trickier task in that it is hard to sympathise with his character’s air of misogynistic entitlement. He is forever putting down his wife, dislikes drama and fiction because “the people who in real life contribute the absolute least get all the sympathy”, and takes predictable pot-shots at the Guardian for its mix of “righteous indignation and typographical inaccuracy”. Yet Jennings suggests that Robin’s patrician superiority conceals a vulnerable, emotionally wounded human being.

Duncan undergoes a similar journey. She suggests, with great skill, a woman who, denied a career in the real world (but why in the 1980s?), has turned inwards and developed a talent for verbal laceration. She attacks the “casual racism” of the Tory party, questions a class system in which it becomes “easy to mistake an expensive education for an actual understanding of the world”, and thinks society would be improved if Mrs Thatcher were taken to see Hedda Gabler. Like Jennings, Duncan experiences a sea change in the final moments, but one wishes Woods had allowed us a glimpse of the character’s hinterland much earlier.

In short, this is a promising piece that shows Woods – who himself went to Eton and Oxford – sabotaging a world of gilded privilege. But he will write even better plays when he realises that drama does not depend on last-minute revelations that make us question everything that has gone before.

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