Edward Albee’s 2002 play is only on its first UK revival, and perhaps this is understandable as the audience for a black tragi-comedy about bestiality may be rather specialised.
When we first meet Martin (Damian Lewis) and Stevie (Sophie Okonedo), their affectionate banter has the flavour of Noel Coward about it, mundane matters of forgetfulness and old school ties.
Hints that not all might be well come with a mysterious business card and an even more mysterious smell, which Stevie detects on her husband. However his admission that he is in love with Sylvia, who is a goat, is only met with laughter and a joke about ‘the feed store’).
Martin’s friend Ross shows up to interview him, and finds him preoccupied. Sensing a juicy story about an affair he’s primed to listen, enjoying the details until a photo of the other woman is revealed. Yes, she is a goat.
Act Two is a moment of revelation, with wife and son incredulous at the news of the identity of ‘a certain Sylvia’. This is Okonedo’s star turn, quietly smashing plates and trying to fathom how her perfect marriage has collapsed (‘I’ve never been unfaithful, nor even with a cat.’).
Martin’s ‘epiphany’ when gazing in the eyes of Sylvia seems normal to him, and he displays obvious bewilderment about the other members of his animal-loving support group, with their regret about toying with pigs, geese and German Shepherds.
What starts as an uncomfortable black comedy slowly turns tragic, with the gay son of the house (Archie Madekwe) struggling to accept his perfect dad could do such things. His disturbance moves the plot into other taboo areas, briefly, but it is Okonedo’s final entrance and the killer punch concerning Sylvia which underlies the tragedy.
Lewis’ accent seems as vague as his character, but he pitches the role well, and the set design with expanding walls and breakable clay and sugar glass items sets the piece off perfectly.
This play isn’t for everyone – from the gasps in the theatre it hasn’t lost its power to shock, and the language as as ripe as you might imagine given the subject – but if you want something a bit different you might want to give this limited season (into early June) a try.