Almeida Theatre, London – until 21 November 2017
For Mike Bartlett’s new play Albion, the Almeida is almost in the round, the stage stretched into a long oval. Miriam Buether’s impressive set is a garden, with a lawn, a border and a full-size mature tree looming at the back. Both title and set make it clear: England is a garden, and this particular garden is England.
Bartlett’s three-hour state of the nation play draws out the defining preoccupations and dilemmas of our time through the domineering Audrey, a wealthy businesswoman abandoning London for the country and a garden restoration project after the death of her soldier son. There are parallels with The Seagull and Irina Arkadina, with a social order failing to locate its place in a changed world. Rupert Goold’s production throws everything at the play, with a fine cast and staging, but ultimately Bartlett’s play is too flawed to match these ambitions.
Albion has strong writing, intriguing characters and one barn-storming lead role. However, it is also flabby, predictable and clichéd so, despite its various strengths, it amounts to a frustrating evening. The star of the show is Victoria Hamilton, returning to the stage after several years away, who is worth the price of a ticket on her own, She holds the play together with a funny, powerful performance as Audrey Walters, a Conran-style entrepreneur who controls and dominates those around her.
She is a fine comic creation, entitled, dictatorial and impossible, but just about able to get away with it. The play revolves around her, and when her chalk-and-cheese author friend Katherine complains that she is a supporting character in Audrey’s life she speaks for everyone. However, this becomes a major weakness for the play as the large supporting cast lack space to become more than background.
Other actors put in excellent performances. Luke Thallon is endearingly awkward as local boy Gabriel, whose opportunities are constrained by money and class: “I’ll make coffee. Then I’ll manage people making coffee. That’s probably it.” Helen Schlesinger is subtle and compelling as Katherine, is the nearest thing to a counterweight, as the liberal, culturally free-wheeling alter ego to Audrey self-made, traditionalist. Margot Leicester’s aging, resentful local cleaner Cheryl is a minor triumph of class resentment.
However, despite its good points Albion has too much going on, and much of does not come as a surprise when it eventually arrives. Nothing is left implied, and everything is spelled out to the audience. The second half sags as a series of hot 2010s issues are ticked off: dementia, the housing crisis, millennial rootlessness, Brexit, country v city. Bartlett tries to pack in far too much, with key plot loops playing out around the increasingly uncertain figure of Audrey, sometimes off-stage. Meanwhile the staging veers from neat coups – the cast plant an entire garden as a scene change – to the leaping off the deep end, as Audrey’s son’s grief-stricken girlfriend dances in a rainstorm shoving earth up her dress. There’s a worthwhile play in there somewhere, and Bartlett writes original, compelling characters. However, as with other recent new plays such as Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes or Ella Hickman’s Oil at the Almeida, Albion tries and fails to deliver all encompassing, era-defining, realist drama. Simpler, subtler drama would come as a relief.