Julian Eaves reviews Mike Bartlett’s play Albion now playing at the Almeida Theatre, London.
This is a welcome revival for Mike Bartlett’s deeply Chekovian meditation upon the yawning gulf between the UK’s ‘metropolitan elites’ and the provincial masses they neither know, understand nor like. It was a hit three years ago, and now – slightly tweaked to fit our marginally altered Zeitgeist – it’s back, with almost exactly the same cast, for another short run in Islington. Unlike at the National, which has improved on the original by giving the characters something bigger than themselves to struggle through, this bourgeois group has nothing more to fight against than themselves, and so that is what they do. And how.
55-year old, clever matriarch, Audrey, has taken possession of a vast crumbling pile of a country house in the depths of nowhere in particular, consumed by a passion to restore its once sprawling gardens, the legendary creation of forgotten 1920s gardener, Wetherbury. Her name conjures the interesting horticultural parallel of the doomed blonde and the homicidal plant named after her in ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’, and there is something equally tragic and terrible about her.
Clustered about this tyro is a rag-bag assortment of social types that Chekov would have loved: the weak and indolent but self-satisfied second husband, Paul (a calmly louche Nicholas Rowe); the pretty but already bitterly disappointed and snappy daughter, Zara (deliberately named after a budget clothing shop?… Daisy Edgar-Jones); the faithful but decrepit old retainers, Matthew (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Cheryl (right on the common, Margot Leicester); the gauche young-man-with-talent-but-without-the-will-to-make-it-succeed, Gabriel (how angelic, Donal Finn); the kindly but ineffectual neighbour, Edward (all-tweeds-and-second-rate-gentry, Nigel Betts); and the interloping and frighteningly efficient foreign staffer, Krystyna (Edyta Budnik). Onto the fire generated by this mob is poured the burning oil of three other elements: the mysterious, haunting presence of a mute dead son, killed in a far-away, pointless war, James (Wil Coban, also doubling – a trifle confusingly, as Weatherbury himself, and yet another figure in this tangled web, Stanley); then there is his bereaved fiancee, driven Ophelia-like plant-mad, Anna (Angel Coulby); and – finally – the coup de grace of the Pushkinesque, detached observer and commentator, celebrity author, and old best friend of the hostess, Katherine Sanchez (Helen Schlesinger, scrutinising the audience every bit as intently as her fellows).
Trapped in Miriam Buether’s oval lozenge of a raised lawn, Bartlett’s script splits the action of the two halves into four acts by first populating and then de-populating its fringes with rack-fulls of potted shrubs, punctuating this suffocatingly oppressive world with just about its only action. Otherwise, we get two and a half hours of listening to one argument after another, alleviated by ever briefer excursions into happier matters. While this makes considerable demands on the patience of the audience, perseverance is handsomely repaid in the high-point three-way spat – a model exercise in passive aggression – in which mother, daughter and best friend and now daughter’s lesbian lover (don’t worry, you won’t miss that coming) spar for control of the high if not particularly moral ground. This is a magnificent scene and reminds us of the brilliance of this writer.
If only the whole play fired on all cylinders like that exchange. Unfortunately, the rest of the script, while stuffed ram-full of fascinating commentaries on today’s world, politics, society, wealth and poverty, youth and age, sexual politics, doesn’t quite find such a sure footing as in that moment of bared emotional honesty. Things are further complicated by the plot containing more holes than the emptied herbaceous borders, but I would advise patrons considering attendance at this production not to bother themselves with trivial questions like, ‘But a woman of her capabilities would never have made such an elementary mistake as to have failed to get a proper survey done on a big old house like that, would she?’ There is seldom any advantage in the theatre to be gained by being smarter than the characters on stage.
Instead, I would ask you to reflect just how incredibly difficult it is (a) to make any kind of sense of what is happening in this latter-day ‘Albion’ (a poetic coinage for England), and (b) how very much more tricky it is to try and wrestle our mess of a nation onto a single-stage and place it within a restricted time-frame. Bartlett, and his delicately masterful director, Rupert Goold, have done their damnedest and they hit as many targets as they miss. The cast is very good indeed, and Hamilton keeps finding new things to think and do and feel as Audrey, a woman who clearly barely knows who she is. Neil Austin’s astutely nuanced lighting and Gregory Clarke’s vivid sound design flesh out this world still further, giving it an allure that – almost – convinces.
But if the overall impact of this Albion does not quite ring true, then we should look outwards for explanations: agreed, it is not easy to write like Chekov, but it is very much more difficult to have to live – and to try to make something worthwhile of oneself – in a once-great empire experiencing its final stages of decay.