The Chairs, review: casually brilliant buffoonery and chilling existential emptiness

Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter in The Chairs - Helen Murray
Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter in The Chairs - Helen Murray

It’s 25 years since London was treated to a superlative account of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist masterpiece of 1952 in which a nonagenarian couple, marooned on a water-logged island, play host to a rising tide of imaginary guests, fetching more and more chairs for these invisible visitants to sit on.

That was presented by Theatre de Complicité, albeit the leads were taken by Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers. Now two of Complicité’s best-loved players during its infancy, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni, both in their early sixties, are incarnating these antiquated figures of last-gasp humanity. Joining the pair – married in real-life – is Toby Sedgwick, another Complicité alumnus.

It’s a pleasure to report that the trio have produced – with fast-rising director/ adaptor Omar Elerian – something that equals the memory of that 1997 revival, and maybe outstrips it. 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; she’s simian and parodically scuttling, he’s puffed-up yet vulnerable. They possess a mesmerising childlike grace – and Elerian takes a pointedly playful approach, rephrasing, with modern nods, Ionesco’s text, and emphasising the theatrical context.

Old-hat though that might sound, the evening’s swag-curtained “staginess” does wonders to unsettle cosy expectations. Surprises are sprung from the start, when we overhear Magni despairing about going on.

His mock panic filters into his antics on-stage, blurring the boundary between artifice and reality. We know it’s all an act, yet it chimes with the character’s mental infirmity and the self-doubts this aged janitor has about his life’s achievement.
Hunter’s husky-voiced attempts to coax on her beloved “Crumpet” gains a frisson of genuine marital concern alongside an old trouper’s dread of being left in the lurch. We laugh a lot as they pretend-converse with, and even sexually cavort with, their insubstantial interlopers but when they later cling to each other, chairs whirling around as if on an infernal carousel, they convey a piercing sense of engulfing mortality.

The multiple funny-business interruptions from Sedgwick as a reluctantly intrusive stage-hand could easily sabotage the classic. Yet they also help excavate the philosophical profundity lurking beneath the sketch-like simplicity: life, we see in microcosm, is a series of cack-handed improvisations.

Everything builds in the original towards the symbolically anti-climactic arrival of “the Orator”, but Elerian cleverly scuppers even that neatness, and the production has yet another trick up its sleeve to ensure that his chilling vision of existential emptiness is faithfully honoured. Bravissimo.

The Chairs is at the Almeida Theatre until March 5. Tickets: 020 7359 4404;