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Albion review at Almeida Theatre, London – ‘gloriously rich’

Victoria Hamilton and Nicholas Rowe in Albion at the Almeida Theatre, London. Photo: Marc Brenner Victoria Hamilton and Nicholas Rowe in Albion at the Almeida Theatre, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Set in a country garden, Mike Bartlett’s new play digs wide and deep – and the soil proves fertile. Albion is an intensely felt, delicately observed drama spanning a century of social change, that coaxes into blood-red bloom affecting ideas about home, identity, and love.

Astutely directed by Rupert Goold, it’s a hybrid of earthy sensuality, sentimental nostalgia and damaging emotional frigidity that is peculiarly English. It’s a domestic drama painfully ripped up by its roots, a depiction of modern England’s dreaming full of hopeless longing, fear and despair.

Bartlett has accurately described the piece as Chekhovian, But the (family) tree whose branches arch over the action is not a silver birch or a cherry tree, but an English oak, and seemingly familiar characters move in satisfyingly unexpected directions.

Searching desperately for some sense of permanence and stability from this crumbling patch of ground is Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton). She’s stepped away from her successful business of interior design shops and hurled her family off the London property ladder to fulfil her fantasy of restoring the grand, dilapidated house and its grounds. Her oldest friend, Katherine (Helen Schlesinger), an acclaimed author, has her doubts about such a drastic move, and for Audrey’s daughter Zara (Charlotte Hope), who has a fledgling career in publishing, it’s “a disaster”.

Audrey’s benignly rudderless second husband Paul (Nicholas Rowe) drifts into rural life with a bored shrug. But there’s a stabbing grief beneath the half-hearted squabbling: Zara’s brother James, an army captain, was killed overseas a year before. To Audrey’s discomfort, his stricken girlfriend (Vinette Robinson) has attached herself to the family, and his is not the only ghost in the garden: it was created after the First World War by a returning soldier in memory of the fallen.

Bartlett is too smart and subtle a writer to resort to bald polemic, and there’s no direct mention of Brexit. But this is a portrait of a nation clinging to Downton-ish visions of the past, and uncertain of its future. The right to ownership – of places, people, even memories – is bitterly disputed. For some – like the elderly cleaner supplanted by an enterprising Polish woman – the pace of change is too rapid; for others – like Gabriel, a young local whose dreams of romance and a literary career are all buried in this rural backwater – it’s too
slow.

The acting across the ensemble is stunning, with Hamilton a snarky, sparky, desperately unhappy Audrey. Her confrontations with Schlesinger’s pretentious, touchingly lonely Katherine are especially fine, loaded with decades of unspoken jealousies and secrets. And when desire slithers into Audrey’s attempted Eden, it strikes with cruel ferocity. In fact, while the setting appears genteel, the drama goes for the gut. It’s gloriously rich, achingly sad, and quite beautiful.

Verdict
Fine, nuanced Chekhovian exploration of Englishness, home, love and family
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