Albion at the Almeida Theatre
It feels like a pretty big misstep to programme a play, at least in part about English identity post-Brexit referendum, as tediously posh and white as Albion. Even if it is by Mike Bartlett.
Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton) has bought the home of her childhood, a crumbling countryside mansion whose previously grand gardens have gone to ruin (have a guess what this is all an allegory for). With her comes husband Paul (Nicholas Rowe), “Oh I’ve just done a placement at Penguin” daughter Zara (Charlotte Hope) and not-quite daughter-in-law Anna (Vinette Robinson). There’s local colour in Luke Thallon’s bashful Gabriel, while Audrey’s itinerant writer friend Katherine (Helen Schlesinger) pops up to ruffle some feathers.
Each character sits on a sliding scale of Chekhovian melancholy, from the largely chill Paul to Anna, unable to move beyond the death of her partner, and Audrey’s son, James (this plotline gets saddled with a soil sex scene that is in equal parts absurd and unpleasant in its reliance on “hysterical woman” tropes). With English melancholy tends to come wistfulness, leading Bartlett to examine the dangers of being too reverent of the past.
At a 1920s murder mystery party Anna – the only person of colour in the play – highlights the horrors the English conveniently overlook when indulging in their love for a period piece. Yet Bartlett complicates the country’s – largely white – obsession with how things once were – embodied by Audrey – by mixing in the idea that we need something to cling on to, some kernel of the past, to prevent the rapacious churn of progress from washing everything away.
When Bartlett puts away his massive sledgehammer of metaphor – look, Audrey wants to keep people off her land, it’s like immigration! – there are some nice observations about friendship, grief and the allure of nostalgia as one gets older (a far subtler riff on Albion‘s Brexity overtones). And Hamilton is fantastic. She is an English rose with poisonous thorns, an iron lady beating a (symbolic) retreat from London. Bartlett gives the actress plenty of meaty dialogue to chew on; yet she’s at her best in the play’s quieter moments, when the mother’s loss she carries flutters to the surface.
Sadly, so much of the good in the play – including Miriam Buether’s verdant set and Rupert Goold’s assured direction – is undermined by the lack of diversity in the cast and characters. The most overt Remain vs Leave pseudo-debates take place between a successful upper middle-class writer and a successful upper middle-class businesswoman. The working-class figures, meanwhile, tend to shuffle about at the edges, largely there just to highlight the wealthy bubble the Walters live in. And just because Bartlett is aware of how obnoxious the family’s economically untethered view of the world is, that doesn’t make them particularly worthwhile company.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Albion is at the Almeida Theatre from 10th October until 24th November 2017. For further information or to book visit the Almeida Theatre website here.