Almeida Theatre, London – until 28 November 2017
O ENGLAND IS A GARDEN… There’s a lawn and a vast magnificent tree. In dim moonlight before the start a figure in khaki – could be any war – kneels to feel the earth. Your mind flits to every subaltern war- poet dreaming of country houses; a Forty-Years-On mood flickers. The title has made its intention clear. Yet in the event Mike Bartlett’s play – directed by Rupert Goold – mercifully does not hammer home its metaphors about England, changing values, retrospection, regeneration. You can pick them up, or not bother.
For it is an intimate epic of one family, and the lost soldier is specific. He was the heroine Audrey’s son, blown up in one of our inconclusive modern conflicts. It is his absence, and his ashes, which dominate the play’s emotional explosions. And how! After the trauma of the TV Doctor Foster saga, if there is one thing we know Bartlett can create it is an obsessively barmy woman who in the grip of outrage and personal entitlement will stop at nothing. There are two, or possibly three of these in this long play (just over three hours). Only the brilliance of the writing, a welcome satirical edge in the first hour and some remarkable breathtaking performances all through prevent it feeling like a Hampstead Novel made flesh.
Both Audrey and Anna’s behaviour hover often on the edge of psychological incredibility – especially if you actually are a woman – but then so have all the great tales from Medea to Lady Macbeth. And there are moments where Victoria Hamilton’s Audrey and Helen Schlesinger’s Katherine circle one another like panthers: scenes so stunning, so eloquently perfect in every tone, gesture, word, half-laugh and expression, that the sheer dazzle of it silences criticism.
Audrey is a chic businesswoman – owns shops where everything is white. She has abandoned London with her languid second husband Paul (Nicholas Rowe) and her aghast millennial daughter Zara (Charlotte Hope), a Cambridge graduate with Camden attitudes who is working as a marketing intern for a publisher (there is perhaps tiresomely much in this play about literary ambition, but this is Islington after all). Anyway, Audrey has bought a 15-room manor house her uncle once owned, with a legendary garden designed in the 1920s and now derelict. She wants to recreate childhood memories and older ideas of grand house life with dressed-up parties and county style.
The early scenes are very, very funny, as her brisk controlling ways – echoes of every Victoria Wood posh-cow sketch – upset the veteran gardener and his slow-moving wife Cheryl the charlady (grand work from Christopher Fairbank and Margot Leicester) . She replaces Cheryl with a go-getting young Pole who works four times as fast, and the village hates her as she bars them from their traditional fetes in the Big House garden. Visiting is her college friend, the crop-haired, satirically laughing boho lesbian novelist Katherine. Like the bored husband (Rowe is very funny indeed) Katherine provides more laughs and perspective. But fifty minutes in, as Audrey clashes over the ashes with the dead son’s girlfriend Anna (Vinette Robinson) there is a turnaround. Bartlett forces us to accept that even an irritating memsahib draped in asymmetric oatmeal cashmere and business-school ethics can suffer deep, disabling grief.
Something Audrey has done, in her unshareable maternal mourning, enrages Anna: who despite only dating the son for three months has her own tendency to possessive entitlement. Indeed if you get lulled into thinking that you are watching a decorously entertaining tragicomedy with some nice choreographed entr’acte shrub-planting, brace yourself. By the end of the 95-minute first act it goes the full hyperGoold: thunderstorm, heavy real rain, furiously demented sexual raving in wet earth, and a shock announcement. And that is even before the stinger involving Katherine and Zara, and another demonstration of breathtakingly selfish parasitical entitlement from Anna as she and Audrey grapple for possession of the soldier’s memory.
Nobody behaves rationally – except surprisingly, the husband, and less surprisingly the Polish cleaner. The London business in the background wobbles, as it would; Audrey’s retro dream dies. Or does it? I have to say that the ending convinced me not at all. But after those marvellous performances, excellent startling laughs and virtuoso explosions of OTT DoctorFosterism, one forgives much. Not all, but much.
Box Office 020 7359 4404 to 24 November
Principal Partner; Aspen