Mike Bartlett’s Albion was first performed in 2017 and this first revival from director Rupert Goold, recorded live in February 2020, features many of the original cast. Very much a country house drama and reminiscent of The Cherry Orchard, it is as much a satire as a re-enactment of middle-class England.
It’s a new start for successful businesswoman Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton) who has upended her family from the comfort of their London home for a new start in the country home of an old and unspoilt England, and which contains extensive gardens, once the design of a celebrated gardener that she hopes to restore to their original glory with the support of husband Paul (Nicholas Rowe) although daughter Zara (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is less keen on the move away from the capital’s life and opportunities.
There is a personal driver behind this: Audrey is keen to scatter the ashes of her son James (Wil Coban) who had been killed on active service some two years earlier in the red garden which had been originally modelled in tribute to the fallen of the Great War, although his surviving girlfriend, Anna (Angel Coubry) has ideas of her own.
Whilst neighbour Edward (Nigel Betts) and local handyman-cum-writer Gabriel (Dónal Finn) reinforce the nostalgic theme, money talks and Audrey is more than happy to overlook incumbent gardener Matthew (Geoffrey Freshwater) and his wife Cheryl (Margot Leicester) for the cheaper Polish lady Krystyna (Edyta Budnik) to take over domestic cleaning duties. But when Audrey’s old friend and famous author Katherine (Helen Schlesinger) turns up for the celebration party, things begin to go off plan as beliefs are questioned, cultures clash and dreams are revisited.
The Brexit Referendum had been held when the play was first performed, so many of its references were timely as the country was busy reminiscing over days past of summer cricket and warm beer. The subsequent political climate and the current lockdown challenges have served to reinforce those analogies and keep the play relevant as its middle-class players hold up a mirror to themselves and the class divide.
But there are other deeper connections as we encounter love and romance, loss and grief – whether that relates to a person, a memory, or something more physical – and highlighting the dangers of reimagining a past to suit your own purposes rather than its reality which is often at odds with the truth itself: rose-tinted glasses can be equally thorny if you don’t handle them correctly.
With the action set entirely in the once red garden, the thrust stage design by Miriam Buether is exquisite as we watch the garden grow across the seasons before succumbing, like the characters, to the harsher challenges of the fall.
This is strong and insightful writing where there are no real winners and all the cast perform admirably. Hamilton excels with her assured portrayal of a woman on a misguided mission, her challenges only serving to reinforce her sense of purpose whilst in contrast Rowe offers light relief as her ineffectual husband. Coulby, Edgar-Jones, and Finn are engaging and draw our sympathy in equal measure whilst Schlesinger affords us the voice of reason which is never going to be welcomed or accepted.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: the more it changes, the more it stays the same. The themes in this play are constant and one cannot help but wonder how we will look back on these times.
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Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 16th August 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★