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Review: THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA?, Theatre Royal Haymarket

The late, great Edward Albee is certainly having a West End 'moment', but it rather places this particular revival at a disadvantage, comparing unfavourably as it does with the shattering, unforgettable Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a few streets away.

The Goat (2002) does have the more incendiary premise. Award-winning architect Martin has an affluent lifestyle and seemingly perfect family life, but it's about to be blown apart by the revelation that he's fallen in love with Sylvia - who is a goat. It's a situation mined for both dark comedy, with many excruciating variations on the goat-f-ing gag, and emotional torment.

That's not the only taboo Albee tests, in a piece that constantly prods at our limits of tolerance when it comes love and desire; the couple is self-described liberal. Martin exhibits discomfort with his gay son's sexuality, references incest, and attempts to place his transgression in the context of others': he's the only one of his male friends not constantly cheating on his spouse. Wife Stevie, meanwhile, is blindsided by this wholly unpredictable test of their marriage - who factors in bestiality when they say their vows?

Albee also explores midlife crisis - Martin has recently turned 50 - and the urban malaise. Martin first locks eyes with Sylvia when, searching for a country retreat, he's collecting fresh fruit and vegetables in a pastoral paradise; it's a stark contrast to their bare-bricked walls, scentless display flowers and tasteful neutrals, in Rae Smith's effective design. As their domestic certainty erodes, those walls tear apart.

There's plenty of Virginia Woolf-esque verbal pedantry and gamesmanship here, but to more mixed effect. It's affecting when the despairing Stevie can't help but analyse and make wry quips, out of force of habit, and there's something fascinating about Martin's intellectual justifications. Language, too, becomes weighted when the pair argues over whether Sylvia is who or what, she or it.

But it's too distancing from the visceral human conflict, and the opening scene, pre-revelation, verges on stilted, as abstracted Martin gives obtuse responses to an interviewer and constantly repeats or nit-picks questions. This semantic humour wearies, particularly in Damian Lewis's mannered delivery of it, accentuated by Ian Rickson's initially sluggish pacing.

Lewis is more effective when Martin candidly describes the affair, from bizarre tales of an animal-lovers support group to the unsettlingly tender moment when he recalls reaching through a chain-link fence to nuzzle Sylvia. In rumpled jacket and glasses, he's the absent-minded academic left bewildered by such a potent physical encounter, but there's still a tendency to approach the character from the outside in.

Sophie Okonedo gets the best handle on the play's tone, her Stevie bitterly, caustically funny even as she descends into disbelief, heartbreak and furious vengeance (in one chilling moment, she simply gives an - appropriately - animalistic howl). Albee's Greek tragedy references are borne out by Martin undone by a fatal flaw, but more hauntingly by the devastation Stevie endures and in turn metes out.

Jason Hughes is amusingly self-righteous as Martin's friend Ross, who conducts the interview and first discovers the illicit relationship that could destroy all their reputations. Archie Madekwe makes a promising stage debut as the beleaguered couple's son - gangly and awkward, he's wrestling with a fraught coming out, the heightened confusion of adolescence, and the strange horror of discovering his parents are all too fallible.

A decent rendition of a play that still asks searching questions about social morality, and the form and power of love and sexuality, but overshadowed by that big Albee beast around the corner.

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 24 June

Read our interview with Archie Madekwe

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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Marianka Swain was UK Editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld. A London-based theatre critic and arts journalist, she also contributes to other outlets such as the Telegraph, The i Paper, Ham & H... (read more about this author)

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