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Longtime collaborators, playwright Mike Bartlett and director Rupert Goold last worked together on the formally bold Shakespearean satire King Charles III, an award-winning hit both in the West End and on Broadway. The pair’s latest joint project, Albion, is another tragicomic paean to England and its discontents, novelistic in scale but less adventurous in form, combining the acute social observation of traditional British country-house drama with self-consciously Chekhovian grace notes. Downton Abbey meets The Cherry Orchard.
Performed on an elongated oval stage artfully transformed into a secluded country garden, complete with an impressively mighty fake oak tree, Albion is a visually striking pastoral elegy with grand state-of-the-nation ambitions. Bartlett and Goold delve deep into conflicted notions of patriotism and nostalgia in post-Brexit Britain, but their conclusions inevitably feel a little cloudy. And while there are high-minded cultural allusions buried in this fertile soil, from D.H. Lawrence to Edward Elgar, Agatha Christie to Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, there are also a few too many tired jokes about class snobbery and town-vs.-country rivalry.
Such self-absorbed parochialism will make Albion a less obvious Broadway transfer candidate than King Charles III. That said, a magisterial central performance by Victoria Hamilton (The Crown, Doctor Foster) should boost the play’s broader appeal beyond its Almeida run. Judging by the rapturous reviews that have followed the London opening, Bartlett and Goold already have another hit on their hands.
Audrey Walters (Hamilton) is a successful fifty-something businesswoman with a forceful personality, a prickly temperament and a neurotically narrow ideal of sacred, well-ordered, rustic Englishness. She has just relocated her family from London to rural Oxfordshire, buying the crumbling manor house that once belonged to her uncle. The house’s main feature is its groundbreaking garden lay-out, designed in the 1920s by a famous landscape architect. Brusque on the surface but broken inside, Audrey is trying to root herself in historical continuity as a kind of therapy, restoring one of the gardens as a memorial to her soldier son James (Wil Coban), who died two years ago in an unspecified foreign war.
But the messy reality of Middle England does not bend so easily to fit Audrey’s fantasy. While her comically self-deprecating second husband Paul (Nicholas Rowe) is pliable enough to indulge her capricious schemes, their 23-year-old aspirant-author daughter Zara (Charlotte Hope) is bored by rural life, and finds a way of rebelling that causes her control-freak mother maximum heartache. Audrey also creates tension with local villagers, banning them from using the gardens for a traditional summer festival, and falling out with the house’s long-established elderly cleaner Cheryl (Margot Leicester) by hiring a more efficient Polish immigrant, Krystyna (Edyta Budnik).
Out of this overgrown shrubbery of plots and characters, two combustible female relationships come to dominate Albion. James’ grief-scarred ex-partner Anna (Vinette Robinson) becomes an unofficial fixture at the house, berating Audrey for disrespecting his memory before dropping a bombshell revelation midway through the drama. Audrey’s best friend Christina (Helen Schlesinger), a melancholy lesbian novelist with a cult following, also arrives to shatter her former soulmate’s brittle self-image with some overdue home truths. As the mournful finale looms, Audrey has alienated almost everybody in her life. Torn between financial pragmatism and romantic idealism, she seems fated to pay a heavy price for her single-minded obsession.
The gathering storm clouds of Brexit hang heavy over Albion. While Bartlett and Goold have denied any direct connection, Audrey can easily be read as a personification of the proudly inward-looking, self-sabotaging, anti-EU Leave voters: “This is our little piece of the world and we will do whatever we want with it,” she proclaims, her garden emblematic of the whole of Britain.
But Albion would be a lesser, thinner play if it were just a Brexit allegory. Thankfully the text is richer and more nuanced than that, and Audrey a more complex creation. It is a testament to both Hamilton and Bartlett that she manages to remain broadly sympathetic even at her most grating, never stooping to the easy option of scornful caricature.
Pushing three hours in length, Albion could use a little pruning. Bartlett peppers the play with pithy duologues and smart one-liners, some of them very funny indeed. But the over-arching narrative feels muddled, the symbolism heavy-handed and the emotional tension forced. Minor characters and side plots are half-elaborated, then casually discarded. The closing scene, a bonfire of thwarted ambitions, spent friendships and canceled plans, strikes a particularly false note. It strains plausibility that estranged loved ones would wait so long to settle old scores, then burn bridges with such dramatically convenient finality. Having sustained a novelistic texture for most of the play, it disappoints when Bartlett and Goold eventually surrender to soap-opera tactics.
But Albion has its superlative touches too. Miriam Buether’s elegant stage design is simple yet striking, serving as a key character in the narrative. Goold’s dynamic staging features some impressive flourishes, including ghostly visitations, musical scene changes during which the entire cast plant shrubs around the garden, and a thunderously climactic downpour that soaks the stage while Anna performs a kind of manic pagan raindance.
Whatever its formal flaws and muddy ambitions, this female-driven ensemble piece is above all a terrific showcase for Hamilton, whose Audrey is a powerful avatar of middle-class Englishness at its most self-destructive, both haughty diva and principled idealist, appealing and appalling in equal measure. If Albion wins prizes, her name will be carved on most of them.
Venue: Almeida Theatre, London
Cast: Victoria Hamilton, Nigel Betts, Edyta Budnik, Wil Coban, Christopher Fairbank, Charlotte Hope, Margot Leicester, Vinette Robinson, Nicholas Rowe, Helen Schlesinger, Luke Thallon
Director: Rupert Goold
Playwright: Mike Bartlett
Set designer: Miriam Buether
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Sound designer: Gregory Clarke
Movement director: Rebecca Frecknall
Presented by Almeida Theatre
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