Following on from the highly successful Duet for One (which transferred to the West End) is another disturbing but compelling psycho-drama, Nicholas Wrights 1988 play about the famous psychoanalyst Melanie Klein.
This time, however, the drama is not played out in the professional set-up between psychiatrist and patient in a consulting room but in the personal relationships between Mrs Klein, her daughter and her protg, the latter two also practising psychoanalysts.
The fact that all three have also received therapy reinforces the plays theme about clinicians who help to solve other peoples mental-health problems not being able to deal with the emotional issues in their own lives.
The play is set in 1934 in the Hampstead sitting room/study of the divorced Viennese migr Mrs Klein. Struggling to come to terms with the death of her son Hans in a climbing accident in Hungary, she has asked a colleague to cover for her while she goes to the funeral. Paula, recently escaped from the rising anti-Semitic persecution in Germany, is finding it hard to make a living in London and so passively agrees to do the glorified secretarial work for her intimidating employer.
However, she is interrupted by the arrival of Mrs Kleins daughter Melitta, resentful of her presence and angry with her mothers domineering behaviour, who claims Hans has killed himself. After Mrs Klein herself returns unexpectedly, Paula gets caught up in the longstanding conflict between mother and daughter which comes to crisis point in the wake of Hanss ambivalent death.
Wright highlights the desperate irony that the life of Mrs Klein, a Freudian psychoanalyst who went on to develop her own influential if controversial theories about the treatment of children, should be blighted by the premature death of her son and fractious relations with her daughter. Having acted as therapist to both of them, she seems unable to give them the natural, spontaneous love of a mother but treats them with a similar clinical detachment to that she uses with her other clients.
Psychiatric jargon flies around with all three characters continually analysing their own and each others emotions, or lack of them, as they over-rationalize their reactions. In this cerebral hothouse the long dark night of the psyche becomes increasingly claustrophobic but ultimately reaches some kind of catharsis as real feelings are eventually released.
In the Almeidas intimate space, Thea Sharrocks direction maintains the intensity throughout so that we feel we have been through a journey with the protagonists. Tim Hatleys V-shaped design, with its room of bookcases, writing desk and filing cabinet dominated by dark red walls and low ceiling, adds to the sense of claustrophobia.
The acting is superbly subtle, especially Clare Higginss Mrs Klein, a tragic figure who initially seems to be in total control as she imposes her personality on the others with measured authority but who comes to realize belatedly the damage she has done to her relationships with her children, as she guiltily grieves the loss of both. Zo Waites reveals the depth of Melittas narcissistic bitterness and frustrated desire for independence, while Nicola Walkers enigmatic Paula evolves from pawn to player as she graduates from put-upon assistant to surrogate daughter as no doubt Mrs Klein would be the first to recognize.