Identity, social class and our attachment to the past are explored by Mike Bartlett in his ambitious new play Albion (Almeida Theatre), directed by Rupert Goold.
Successful businesswoman, but grieving mother, Audrey, who recently lost her soldier son in battle, is at war with the whole world and trying to find solace in restoring a once-famous garden in rural Oxfordshire to its former glory. She wants to restore the grounds as gardens of remembrance for the First World War dead and thereby provide a resting place for the ashes of her son. If this project means alienating the village, as well as antagonising her daughter Zara and her dead son's partner Anna, then so be it. Then Zara, an aspiring writer, drops a bombshell – she has become involved in a relationship with Katherine Sanchez, Audrey's best female friend at university who has become a celebrated novelist.
This low-key drama is a portrait of a nation clinging to visions of the past and uncertain of the future, and, as Bartlett, who won acclaim for the bold and imaginative "future history play" King Charles III, probes the intricacies of family life, he pays obvious homage to Chekhov. The play, however, is weakened by being far too long at over three hours, making obvious and effortful allusions to the turbulent process of Brexit and having just too many characters which detract from the core of the drama.
Miriam Buether has created an evocative set with the stage thrust out to form an island-shaped lawn, with a monumental oak tree at the rear, flowerbeds along the sides and compact, encircling brickwork, combining to form a verdant fortress.
At the heart of Rupert Goold's often-witty production is the excellent Victoria Hamilton, making a snarky, sparky, desperately unhappy Audrey and capturing with piercing precision the contradictions of a figure whose obsessiveness and air of entitlement can't disguise her vulnerability and bewilderment. You could say her character is an emblem of Mother England. Among an array of commendable performance is Charlotte Hope as her elusive, melancholy daughter Zara, Nicholas Rowe as her amusingly laid-back loyal husband Paul, Helen Schlesinger as lonely, lesbian novelist pal Katherine Sanchez, and Vinette Robinson as her dead son's passionate ex, Anna. Although the supporting cast is good, in particular Luke Thallon as a jobbing student who cleans windows, and Edyta Budnik as her sharp-tongued Polish cleaner who usurps the place of two former retainers played by Margot Leicester and Christopher Fairbank, I can't help feeling these characters are extraneous to the plot and only serve to pad out the play.
In short, then, this is a flawed but finely nuanced comedy of middle-class manners that could certainly be considered a play for today.
Runs at the Almeida Theatre until Friday 24 November 2017.
Box office: 020 359 4404Last modified: April 6, 2021