The concept of Britain and our relationship with our nostalgic past is something many playwrights are eager to unpick and has been of particular interest since the divisive Brexit vote last year. Even before that writers like Alan Bennett had considered our engagement with the heritage industry in his 2012 play People that examined how one stately home had to think of its future to preserve its past. Now, Mike Bartlett is treading similar ground with his new play Albion at the The Almeida which charts one woman’s decision to restore and preserve a historic garden.
Having penned the acclaimed Charles III which transferred to the West End and ended up as a BBC TV movie earlier this year, as well as the family melodrama Doctor Foster, Bartlett’s star is riding high and Albion is the first production in a new season at The Almeida after a highly successful year. On paper, then, everything should come together here, the right playwright, the right theatre and the hottest hot topic – how Britain’s hankering for a long-lost past is now affecting its political future – but while the play’s set-up is a good one and it begins well, somehow too many slightly unlikely leaps and a run-time of well over 3 hours means Albion just fizzles out.
Set in the Red Garden of an unseen country house, Audrey has stepped-back from her successful London business and city life to return to her childhood home where she intends to restore the 1920s gardens to their former glory. While Audrey has dragged her long-suffering second husband and daughter to calcify in the country, her sense of purpose pits her against the village when she ends their access to the house. Controlling all around her, Audrey must deal with the girlfriend of her son who was killed in action two years before, her daughter’s absences, the expectations of the villagers who want work, all while trying to create something that honours the past and preserves it for the future.
Divided into four acts, Bartlett’s new play suffers from an unsatisfactory second half and too many storylines that feel thin despite the excessive run-time. When did it become fashionable again for all plays to last for three hours or more? Nothing at the Almeida this year has finished before 10.30pm and, not disregarding the comfort of audience members with sore backs and trains to catch, the work almost never requires these lengthy performances. Ink aside, which was gripping and charming to the end, everything else would have been improved with a judicious edit, and Albion in particular needs a fair amount of cropping.
The first two acts which last for 95-minute before the interval are the best part, setting-up a series of interesting discussions about the nature of grief, of memorialisation and the effect of war on those left behind. In addition, through Audrey, by far the most credible character superbly performed by Victoria Hamilton, avenues also open-up exploring mother-son relationships, the problem of city-dwellers moving halfheartedly into the country, the almost spiritual connection with the physical earth of England and a deep need in middle-age to rediscover your roots while guaranteeing your influence on the future.
Despite a flood of four and five-star reviews after press night a couple of weeks ago and plenty of comments about the profundity of Bartlett’s state-of-the-nation family drama, it final 1hr and 20 minutes throws it all away with unconvincing situations and circular arguments. It’s difficult to explain why without revealing spoilers but an argument that plays-out just before the interval between Audrey and her friend Katherine, is revisited again in Act Three almost exactly as it was with little progression and telling us nothing new about the characters. Likewise, one of the biggest leaps of credulity involves the grief-stricken Anna, the girlfriend of Audrey’s deceased son who’d been with him for only 3 months when he died. Yet she easily takes an important step without any reference to the medical and legal complications, not to mention that enormous expense, that would have put significant if not insurmountable obstacles in her path, as similar newsworthy cases have proven.
As Act Three rather laboriously turns into Act Four, you begin to wonder what is left to say, and when the end comes, none of the early promise has been satisfactorily delivered. All those topics Bartlett established so well are still there and it is packed with comment, but, like Against, the play becomes distracted from its original purpose with almost soapy plotting that undercuts the deeper purpose. There is a sense that the physical ground of England is somehow integral to the British soul, and like many war poets, Bartlett finds a romance in this idea but it doesn’t need three hours to come to fruition.
One of the reasons to keep watching is a wonderful central performance from Victoria Hamilton whose sharp and unforgiving exterior hides a deeply emotional centre, a woman who without realising is channelling her grief into an elaborate project that is entirely bound-up with her new understanding of life’s unfair fragility. Everything about Audrey feels real, from the hard-nosed business woman who deliberately stepped-back from the company she started from scratch to pursue a more fulfilling life, to the mother and friend frustrated by the foolish choices she perceives from those around her.
Where Hamilton excels is in making you understand that Audrey’s anger, interference and desire for control actually comes from fearing the long-term emotional consequences for her loved ones who will be permanently and regrettably altered by the things they’re doing. She’s not someone who is outwardly emotional, she resents any idea of expectation imposed on her and rails against it, but she does care and deeply about preserving and protecting all the fragile things in her garden. It is a really superb performance by Hamilton who dominates the show in the right way and exposes the paleness of the other characters.
The best of these is Anna (Vinette Robinson) who is invited to the Red Garden but finds comfort in its peaceful environs and a connection to fallen soldiers that she is unable to leave. Her conflict with Audrey is only partially about her former partner and instead is more generally about the different perspectives on the past that the two women compete over. Despite a relationship of only a few months, Anna sees that period as having shaped her and with an importance that results in the unlikely scenario described above. And while it’s clear that Anna is forging her own link between past and future, quite distinct from Audrey’s, some of the devices chosen to express that – including rubbing soil between her legs – feel melodramatic and faintly ludicrous, especially as Robinson plays her as a remarkably sane woman.
There are plenty of good performances among the rest of the cast even if their characters are little more than sketches. Helen Schlesinger is a calm presence as novelist Katherine, and while it’s hard to believe that she wouldn’t have given-up on Audrey’s one-sided friendship years before, there is plenty of angst to drive a major subplot. Similarly, Charlotte Hope as Audrey’s daughter Zara with literary aspirations plays with ideas of hero-worship and the university process of self-discovery that examines the choices of youth, while Nicholas Rowe’s Paul is a bored but supportive presence as the husband Audrey dragged somewhat unwillingly from the distractions of the city.
There are also a series of servant-roles who give additional context but mostly serve as reflections on Audrey, who is frustrated by the ineptitude and perceived entitlement of local cleaner Cheryl (Margot Leicester), while continuing to employ her and more efficient Polish cleaner Krystyna (Edyta Budnik), a sign of the heart beneath Audrey’s brusque efficiency.
Miriam Buether’s oval garden set in the ¾ round is charming, but two long sequences in which characters symbolically plant and tear up a series of flowers and shrubs around the perimeter may be loaded with meaning but they do protract an already long evening. Albion has a lot going for it and lots of things that it starts to say, but despite Victoria Hamilton’s wonderful performance, its length works against it. It becomes a little repetitive, de-prioritising audience comfort for an overly strung-out conclusion. Albion could get where it’s going a bit fast, it just needs a thorough pruning.
Albion is at the Almeida until 24th November and tickets start from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1