Tag Archives: Nicholas Rowe

Albion – Almeida Theatre

Victoria Hamilton and Nicholas Rowe in Albion, Almeida Theatre

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


Charles III – Wyndhams Theatre

The arrival of a new monarch is often to be feared, especially after a long and stable reign. But the very nature of this form of government (usually) requires a death to occur before a new age is ushered in. Will the new ruler be fair, dignified and peaceable, or will they court controversy, spend extravagantly and encroach on our rights? Such a change evokes perfectly natural fears and history is awash with examples of heirs to the throne who were considered weak or even downright hated. Much of the time, however, they turned out to be perfectly adequate, even pretty good Kings and Queens.

Transferring from its critically acclaimed run at the Almeida theatre, Charles III leaps forward about 10 years to the death of our present Queen and the moment where Prince Charles ascends to the British throne. Immediately Charles, a thoughtful man with integrity, decides to withhold his signature from a bill ensuring privacy from media intrusion. His reasons are sensible but his interference in the constitutional process leads to a showdown with the Prime Minister and serious consequences for the fragile new state.

One of the most interesting aspects of this play is the use of blank verse which gives it a grand and almost timeless Shakespearean feel. Had it used more modern speech it could easily have felt trite and soap-opera like. Instead what you get is a serious comedy drama touching on some universal themes about the nature of power and the limitations of constitutional monarchy. Even the notion of a King providing an advisory check and balance to the temporary authority of elected politicians is called into questioned when that theoretical sway is used to halt a democratic process.  To what extent then should the honour of a King, even with the intention of doing good, be used to obviate Parliamentary decisions?

The role of Charles is an interesting one here and happily the play is quite balanced in its presentation of him.  While you may not agree with what he’s doing he is a man of integrity and genuinely believes that what he is doing will be to the advantage of the law being created; the refusal to sign is to encourage the government to think more carefully about its proposal rather than an attempt to overthrow the democratic process. However as the play progresses and Charles digs his heels in, his willingness to compromise is lost and his temper leads to some poor decision-making. I loved the subtle references to the personal rule of Charles I and that hint at the historic precedents for monarchs clashing with Parliaments down the ages came across really well.

Although Tim Piggott-Smith didn’t perform on the day I saw it, his understudy was very good and the show didn’t suffer for the absence of its star. It is becoming common for leads not to do the matinees, which is annoying for people paying the high prices and it ought to be noted on the website. In this case it wasn’t so it may well just have been illness on the day. The surrounding cast is very good too, especially Adam James as the much harassed Prime Minister and Nicholas Rowe as the somewhat two-faced leader of the opposition, privately supporting the King but publically disowning him. Envisaging Kate as a Lady Macbeth figure, manipulating events and effortlessly controlling both the family and the public is one of the highlights of the show.

It’s not entirely perfect and the subplot involving Harry wanting to leave the family to be with a deeply irritating pro-republic student lacks any credibility and the performances are pretty flat. Of course the plot is driven by the stark differences between the ruling styles of Charles and his mother, but I couldn’t help being slightly frustrated by the fairly clichéd assumption that Charles would be a bad King. For a man who’s spent the best part of 70 years watching an arguably successful reign it seemed unlikely that he would upset the apple cart so early in his own rule. There are many examples of Princes of Wales whose accession were feared – George IV as Prince Regent was loathed and Queen Victoria’s heir (later Edward VII) was considered profligate – but they ruled unchallenged. There is balance in Charles III however and we see that an essentially decent person doesn’t always make an effective King. It’s a fascinating exploration of the British democratic process and where power actually lies in our constitution. See it if you can.

Charles III is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 31st January and tickets start at £20.

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