A review by James Buxton w for EXTRA! EXTRA!



Wanda's Visit


by Christopher Durang


Directed by Kenneth O'Toole

New End Theatre
22 March – 2 April 2011


Jim (James McNeil) and Marsha (Zena Birch) have been married for thirteen long years, enduring a profoundly dull relationship in suburban America. However, all this changes when Wanda (Gigi Burgdorf), Jim's old high school flame arrives on the scene, intent on luring the hapless Jim back. In a hilarious one Act play by award winning playwright, Christopher Durang, the unhinged Wanda invades their lives and gabbles endlessly on about her colourful past. Yet as Marsha grows increasingly irritable, the strain begins to take its toll as both partners begin to wonder, will they ever be rid of this relentless fruit cake?

Wanda's Visit is a short but highly entertaining piece of theatre which pits two very different women against each other. Birch's Marsha is painfully accurate as the sardonic hostess who patiently abides the insufferable Wanda, with polite smiles and narrowed eyes she exudes an agonizing sense of condescension. Birch wears a corporate outfit of heels, blouse and pencil skirt, which contrasts aptly with Wanda's hippie style. Burgdorf in a skirt made of ties and an overcoat which resembles a sponge cake, looks every inch a new age drifter, as she downs the Ribena Birch gives her instead of Vodka. The role of Wanda must be an enjoyable one to act, for her no holds barred enthusiasm and zany characterization. Durang enjoyably polarizes the situation, with two woman at totally opposite ends of the spectrum fighting over a lily-livered man.  At one point Marsha describes Wanda as “an insane, nightmare Retriever.” This description couldn't be any more accurate as Burgdorf presents dogmatic zeal with insatiable energy. Yet Wanda is not as distraught an emotional wreck as she would have you believe - her loquacious sob stories of nefarious boyfriends, so dangerous she has had to have plastic surgery, do not solely demand sympathy. Rather, Burgdorf shows Wanda to be a manipulative, calculating woman whose intention is to guilt trip Jim into taking her back. After all, isn't it his fault that after he stopped replying to her letters she became a walking joke amongst the Football team? McNeil's Jim is an uncertain, weak willed man trapped between two domineering women, neither of whom he can please. Caught between saving his marriage and not offending Wanda, McNeil's shows a man, slowly unravelling at the seams, unable to take a grip on the events and oust the rampallion, Wanda.

O'Toole's production of Wanda's Visit is consistently enjoyable and makes do with the bare essential of props. The sparse, ordered  interior of Jim and Marsha's house contrasts effectively with the manic chaos Wanda introduces to their lives and O'Toole has the actors themselves seamlessly rearrange the furniture to suggest the bedroom or a restaurant. In one memorable scene, Durang allows us to hear fragments of Wanda's libidinous past when she invades Jim and Martha's bedroom to drone on for hours while they restlessly toss and turn in bed. O'Toole also employs the sound of a ticking clock in this scene, to increase the couples growing aggravation and suggest the passage of time.

Wanda's Visit is an amusing play that is well acted and perceptively directed.  Its brevity leaves us wanting more, which is testament to its quality as a genuinely humorous piece. It is clear Durang has been influenced by Edward Albee and with all the unspoken tension between Jim and Marsha boiling beneath the surface, Wanda's Visit is occasionally reminiscent of a three handed, Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Burgdorf's Wanda providing enough psychotic energy to make Richard Burton and the late Elizabeth Taylor's relationship look relatively sane. But it is the dynamic of false smiles and painfully ingratiating pleasantries between Birch and Burgdorf that really power the show, while McNeil's, Jim stands by, a helpless pawn in a woman's world. If Durang's play teaches us anything, it's to never introduce your ex-girlfriend to your wife or, do so at your own peril.

New End Theatre
27 New End
London NW3 1JD
Box Office 08700332733
Tues to Sat 6.45pm

Tickets £7 (£6 concessions)

Early bird offer £4 – book before 24 March
22 March – 2 April                      

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