In Review

The Chairs review: the theatre of the absurd at its ‘most absurdist’

The 1952 ‘absurdist masterpiece’ by Eugène Ionesco is now on at the Almeida

It’s 25 years since London was treated to Théâtre de Complicité’s “superlative account” of The Chairs, the 1952 “absurdist masterpiece” by Eugène Ionesco, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. That version starred Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers as the nonagenarian couple, marooned on a water-logged island, and fetching more and more chairs for a stream of invisible guests.

In this superb new Almeida production, which equals and perhaps even outshines the 1997 show, the leads are two Complicité veterans: Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni. “For casually brilliant buffoonery and sweet grotesquery, Hunter and Magni, dressed to the nines in a buttoned-up archaic fashion, make an unbeatable double-act.” And they are well served by another Complicité alumnus, Toby Sedgwick, as the intrusive stage-hand who makes “multiple funny-business interruptions”.

This is the theatre of the absurd at its “most absurdist”, said Sarah Crompton on What’s on Stage. Director (and translator) Omar Elerian has added new layers of stage business and chaos. At the start, we hear Magni (Hunter’s real-life husband) over the tannoy having a pre-show attack of nerves and refusing to go on. The interventions from Sedgwick’s hangdog stage manager add an “edge of vaudevillian slapstick to the Beckett-like bleakness of the couple’s existence”. And together, the central pair “weave pure magic”.

They are “spine-shiveringly good”, agreed Arifa Akbar in The Guardian – producing a “gloriously fizzy cocktail of slapstick, physical theatre and silliness”. This is not “arch, head-scratching absurdism, but scintillatingly sad comedy”.

Moment to moment, the play is “exquisitely done”, said Dominic Maxwell in The Times. But ultimately, it seems rather empty: a journey down a dated “metatheatrical cul-de-sac” that soon wears thin “over two hours, no interval”. Can a night at the theatre be both “tremendous and torturous”? Bold and distinctive, yet also deadening? “It absolutely can.”

Almeida Theatre, London N1 (020-7359 4404). Until 5 March

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