A family. A dysfunctional family with a life that revolves around an Oxfordshire garden is what you should expect to see in Mike Bartlett’s new work Albion at the Almeida Theatre. It is a breath of fresh air to see a play with so much depth and fully developed characters even if it 3 hours long. The lines are full of wit, yet I wouldn’t consider Albion to be a comedy. Critics have been naming this play a post-Brexit one, but in reality, it lightly brushes the surface. Academics would love to discuss how much Albion’s characters play a microscopic part in the larger EU/UK dialectic, but I’d put it down to reminding avid Bartlett fans of how GOOD his performance writing truly is – when it comes to describing families with tonnes of baggage and dissecting characters, Bartlett knows his s**t.
Bartlett is the same writer who wrote the sensational BBC drama Doctor Foster and the play’s lead actress is the cheated wife’s neighbour Anna who is performed by Victoria Hamilton. Victoria takes on the role of a highly successful business owner Audrey Walters who decides to leave London behind for a part of Britain that is traditionally known as a typical English garden. For Bartlett, it is a small island of Albion built by garden designer Weatherbury who memorialised his WWI comrades. Here Audrey breaks the family’s heart including his son’s girlfriend (Vinette Robinson), of only 3-months, by scattering her son’s ashes over the garden without informing them. But, did she really have the right to do it, or did she owe it to her daughter Zara (Charlotte Hope) and her son’s girlfriend Anna to ask for their permission first?
Then there’s the longstanding relationship Audrey has with Cheryl (Margot Leicester) and Matthew (Christopher Fairbank) who have acted as both cleaners and gardeners to Audrey for more than 20 years. She discovers that they aren’t as fast and efficient at their job as they used to be and calls on Krystyna (Edyta Budnik) a young woman from Poland who can do their job quicker and for a cheaper price. Is this a significant question pointing at high immigration for low-cost workers, or is it the loyalty which Cheryl and Matthew have for Audrey which the audience should feel more pity and sympathy for?
Alongside that, there’s the strange and bizarre situation of Audrey’s university friend Katherine (Helen Schlesinger), an award-winning author who falls in love with Audrey’s daughter who is also an inspiring writer. It later transpires that the feelings are mutual for Zara and Audrey isn’t happy about it. Katherine is 30 years senior to Zara and their writing ambitions seem aligned yet Audrey, being Audrey, wants her daughter back and goes as far as threaten Katherine’s accomplished writing career. Do we just sit and let romantic ideals win by permitting the lovers to get on with life, which (by the way) is consensual as Zara is over 18 years old, or is it the betrayal of Audrey’s best friend to take away her daughter that hurts more?
Class, status, and privilege also come into focus. Gabriel (Luke Thallon), a local boy falls in love with Zara and confides in his interest in writing as well, yet Zara belittles his intentions to study a Creative Writing course at Oxford Brookes University, while Audrey tries to push Anna away from her Oxfordshire country home when Anna is two month’s pregnant, carrying her grandson in her tummy. Are these just selfish and judgemental choices by Zara and Audrey, pushing people away from their dreams for their own egotistical gain?
A lot of hidden agendas and secretive intentions become unlocked, from friendships to family relationships. All of these entail poignant themes including ownership, permission and loyalty. The shape of time naturally changes people’s attitudes and this is the same for politics and society. If in the future, 100 years or, even, two hundred years from now, theatre directors decide to stage this play, they would be giving future audiences a good glimpse of the mounting social issues England was struggling with during the 21st Century. Sure, there are many plays with fresh writing as this, but this one is timely and sticks perfectly when Brexit is confirmed to take place and the prices of UK homes and British landowning are increasing exponentially. There’s no going back.
It’s hard to shake off how likable Audrey’s character is despite how distasteful some of her choices are. Hamilton brings to light Audrey’s love for her immediate family and husband Paul (Nicholas Rowe), yet her desire for things to be done her way seem stronger. Hamilton is masterful in every way here and deserves more than a sideline role in TV. Thankfully director Rupert Goold gives her the chance to really shine. Miriam Buether, Miraculous Engineering and MDM Props Limited work together to build a tree fit for the stage with a large garden path enabling all cast members to recreate a vibrant garden full of beautiful flowers and green plant life within a space of three minutes. I’d check the Almeida Theatre website and get a ticket if I was you. The production is almost sold out and there’s no surprise that it is.