sat 15/06/2024

The Chairs, Almeida Theatre review - a tragi-comic double act for the ages | reviews, news & interviews

The Chairs, Almeida Theatre review - a tragi-comic double act for the ages

The Chairs, Almeida Theatre review - a tragi-comic double act for the ages

A new translation is uproariously funny, if a little too clever for its own good

Two characters in search of an ending: Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter in 'The Chairs'Images - Helen Murray

By all accounts, whenever The Chairs is dusted off for a new production it manages to resonate for audiences, as would any half-decent play laughing in the face of the futility of existence. And this cheeky, charming, often uproarious new spin on Eugène Ionesco’s "tragic farce" has landed at just the right time.

How much of a punch the play ever lands, though, depends on the balance it strikes between comedy and pathos. Perhaps director and translator Omar Elerian feels that the pandemic world has had a bit too much suffering; maybe he was just enjoying himself too much. But by deliberately, perversely sabotaging the play’s stunning denouement (albeit in the spirit of Ionesco himself) he sells himself, and his amazing performers, a little short. 

Nevertheless, this really is a fantastically funny, bravura night out, with a double act in Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni that reminds me of another great pairing of theatrical old hands, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, in this play’s close relation, Beckett's Waiting for Godot. They’re that good. 

Magni, a co-founder of Complicité, and Hunter, perhaps its most astonishing performer, are the Old Man and the Old Woman, nonagenarian husband and wife alone in a house on an island at the end of the world. Each day he relates to her the details of his long and wasted life, which she then dutifully forgets so that the following day he can start over. And each day she stops him from throwing himself out of the window. “The further we go,” he laments, “the deeper we sink.”

But today is going to be different. The man has prepared his “message, for the whole of humanity” and invited a speaker to relate that message to a gathering of illustrious guests. It will be his crowning achievement. But will they have enough chairs?Almeida The ChairsElerian offers a supremely droll start to the evening, both for an audience which has spent two years attempting to communicate and connect from behind closed doors, and for a play that wears its theatricality on its sleeve. Before the curtain has risen, we hear the performers via a radio suspended high above the stage, as the old man refuses to perform – he can’t find the motivation, he says, then claims to have Covid – and his wife and the director himself try to persuade him. 

It’s a brilliant little prologue, one that sets up the essential relationship between the couple: he self-pitying, anxious, reticent, she encouraging, facilitating. It’s notable that as the invisible guests arrive, it’s the tiny, stooped old woman who has to carry each new chair. 

What a strange pair they make, chalk-faced, mannequin-like, she with bright orange hair, he a tuft of white, each accentuating their natural voices to comic effect – Hunter’s sweet rasp sounding Gollum-like as she coos “my crumpet” to her husband, his Italian accent entering self-parody as the man whose domestic rank is “master of the mop” fawns over the general, the duchess, even the emperor who, supposedly, enter his home. 

For, of course, these guests could simply be imagined. Hunter and Magni are wonderful in conveying two people clinging onto love and dreams, perhaps even sanity, their memories dominated by regret – she of the son who rejected them, he of the mother whose death he missed (more shades of the pandemic). Hunter, recently mesmerising as all three witches in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, has an incredible connection with the audience, her diminutive frame almost crying out to be picked up and given a hug. It seems completely appropriate when she asks two people in the front row to give her a hand with the chairs.Almeida The ChairsCo-designers Cécile Trémolières and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen have beautifully dressed the stage with layers of different coloured drapes, which will prove highly adaptable as the action progresses. Other than that, there’s little beyond the chairs, a mop and a teacup, with director and actors making hay with the play between real, imagined and theatrical. 

The design, choreography and physical comedy reach a glorious crescendo with a sequence in which the poor couple struggle to accommodate a flood of new arrivals, the stage spinning as they juggle more and more chairs and, somehow, find order in the chaos. 

Unfortunately, the couple's moment of truth – the arrival of the speaker – is when an uproarious evening splutters to an anti-climax beyond that even intended by Ionesco. The actor Toby Sedgwick (pictured above, with Magni and Hunter) has already made a few surprise appearances when he shows up in his primary role, which is now reconceived in such a way that the play’s profundity and pathos are lost. Elerian may have thought he was achieving the same purpose as the playwright, in a mode more suited to the times. But he risks losing a few bums from those troublesome seats. 

Hunter and Magni are simply wonderful in conveying two people clinging onto love and dreams, perhaps even sanity, their memories dominated by regret


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters