BWW Review: ALBION, Almeida Theatre
The urge to present state-of-the-nation plays following the Brexit vote is understandable, even vital, but has produced decidedly mixed results. Thankfully, Mike Bartlett's empathetic Chekhovian response is a real winner: rich in loamy metaphor, yes, but also a gripping family drama crackling with humour.
Audrey has moved her family from Muswell Hill to historic West Country pile Albion, chasing a happy childhood memory of a world she thought her children would inherit. She plans to restore the gardens to their former English glory: a century ago, they featured 31 themed compartments, "the chaos of nature in a formal setting".
Audrey runs a successful White Company-esque business, but has stepped back from her role, driven by the idea that this heritage project is of national importance - far more so, she believes, than having locals trample over the garden, which has in recent years played host to community fetes and festivals.
Affable husband Paul is along for the ride. Rather less enthused are daughter Zara, a publishing intern uprooted from London; concerned novelist friend Katherine; and Anna, the former partner of Audrey's late son James - an army captain killed by a roadside bomb - who's now bound to the garden due to Audrey making a unilateral decision about James's ashes.
But Audrey won't be deterred by familial or local opposition. Like Doctor Foster, she's one of Bartlett's compelling, egotistical fanatics: accomplished, restless, purposeful and unforgiving. The older charlady who's been working at the house for years is swiftly replaced by Krystyna, a more efficient Polish cleaner, as everyone and everything in Audrey's life is subsumed by the desire to fulfil her goal.
It's a cracker of a part for Victoria Hamilton, and she is utterly magnificent in it. Unhappy Audrey is so terrified of her own grief-fuelled vulnerability that she will only respect strength, like Krystyna's unsentimental business savvy. True dependence alarms her, even as she uses it to control others.
She spits out the words "civic responsibility" with Thatcherite disdain; locals should appreciate her supplying future work opportunities, not expect handouts. Yet there's a warped nostalgia that also has her relishing "staff" and throwing Agatha Christie-themed 1920s parties - the lady of the manor replacing patronage with privatisation.
Anna astutely interrogates her class-, race- and gender-blind fetishisation of the past, while Katherine's latest tome satirises the uneducated, angry populism born of inequality that now drives our country's decision-making. But Audrey needs unquestioned values in order to glorify James's death; the garden, created as a tribute to the fallen of the First World War, is the perfect framing.
Rupert Goold draws fantastic performances from the whole ensemble. Helen Schlesinger is magnetic as Katherine, the bohemian writer more accustomed to imagining than experiencing, and who wrestles with a romance that may also be born of toxic nostalgia. Her face-offs with Hamilton's overbearing matriarch are electrifying.
As Zara, Charlotte Hope expresses the despairing, thwarted ambition of her generation, but it's still a markedly more privileged experience than that of local boy Gabriel (a heartbreaking Luke Thallon), who fears he's destined to serve coffee, and then manage other people serving coffee.
Vinette Robinson's Anna is a parallel fanatic to Audrey, expressed most dramatically (perhaps too dramatically) when she writhes in the soil beneath a punishing rainfall. Nicholas Rowe has a droll take on passive, laconic Paul, and as the ousted cleaner Cheryl, Margot Leicester supplies a wealth of pithily expressed displeasure.
Miriam Buether's vivid thrust design features a monumental tree, turf and flowerbeds - the latter tended by the cast between scenes, with well-chosen musical accompaniment.
The seasonal rhythm of the piece is comforting, and yet Bartlett - with no use of the word "Brexit" - illustrates the dangers of expecting romantic ideals to bloom into practical change, particularly when those beliefs are nurtured in a wistful bubble.
There are some baggy sections, and the first half slightly overshadows the second, but this is still outstanding, thrillingly ambitious theatre.
Picture credit: Marc Brenner