Almeida Theatre, London – until 29 February 2020
What Is It? Another run of Mike Bartlett’s 2017 state of the nation tragicomedy. What Is It About? Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton) has sold her house in Muswell Hill and bought a country mansion in Oxfordshire. The house and garden are special to her, as she spent her formative years there, and it is her mission to restore the garden to its pomp and glory.
How Did It Make Me Feel? For a play that is mostly a comedy, Bartlett’s writing delivers more than laughter. With subtle nuance in places, and sledgehammer wit in others, this never preaches or sneers. The slow, relaxed pace matches the countryside aesthetic, as Miriam Buether’s rural design allows the cast to plant and uproot a garden in the shadow of a great tree.
Rupert Goold’s direction, along with exceptional performances from every member of the cast, make sure the three hour and five minute runtime (including interval) never drags. Hamilton herself deserves special mention – her performance is captivating, intelligent and funny. At no point does she fall into being the tropic villain, entrenched privilege and wealth banning the villagers from her beautiful garden. She is a self-made woman, a widow, who built a business to provide for her children and acquired a second husband, Paul (Nicholas Rowe) who does a fine job of conveying an air of relaxed continuity in her life and throughout play.
Her daughter Zara, played with equal parts angst and vulnerability by Daisy Edgar-Jones, is frustrated at being taken to the countryside, but is also frustrated with her direction in life once she has returned to London. Her son, James, played in intense physical scenes by Will Coban, was killed in action two years previously, and appears to haunt the garden, along with the spectres of the fallen in the First World War, for whom the garden was originally planted.
The family dynamic is complicated by the ongoing presence of Anna (Angel Coulby) James’ partner at the time of his death, who cannot deal with the grief of losing the love of her life. Coulby makes the audience feel her searing pain, as the character struggles with her mental health, and breaks down in a loud, chaotic thunderstorm.
Despite an interesting and witty performance from Helen Schlesinger, 55-year old Katherine’s romance with 23-year old Zara is a rare moment here where something feels slightly off. A romance that may well feel predatory if Katherine were male, instead plays wistfully and slightly uneasily through the male gaze. Though the inclusion of the Polish cleaner Krystyna (Edyta Budnik) is surely to make a point about migration and xenophobia, and is framed in a positive fashion, there nonetheless is a hint of tokenism and stereotype about her character.
Anything Else? On the surface this may be a play about a woman restoring a garden, but once you dig beneath the topsoil this play is about a complicated, nostalgic and divided society, struggling to reason with its national identity. Calum x Albion is playing at Almeida Theatre until the 29th February 2020. If you like our reviews and want to support this blog feel free to buy any of us a virtual coffee here!