An exhilarating three hours at the Almeida Theatre in London last night for Mike Bartlett’s new play Albion.
It was/is everything that I think theatre should be – challenging, thoughtful, confrontational, moving, satirical and relevant.
On entry, the audience is confronted with an enormous dappled-lit tree dominating a sparse set of mostly grass. This is the garden of the historic manor house Albion, representing a long-lost England of the past with its continuity and stability. Evocative faux Vaughan Williams music swells up as the lone figure of a First World War soldier appears on stage and sits contemplatively under the tree, looking into the distance. This cleverly transitions into the arrival of the present-day new owners of Albion. The main protagonist is Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton): a highly successful entrepreneur who has scaled back her work commitments in order to leave London’s rat race to live and breathe the country air and to revive Albion’s long-neglected gardens back to life. We quickly learn that there are parallels with the original owners of Albion: their young son was killed in the First World War and Audrey’s son, also a young army captain, had been killed a year before by a landmine.
The once-famous estate garden is to be restored in its original form as a series of ‘rooms’, the first being a red room. In Audrey’s mind, it will commemorate the death of her son and all young soldiers who have died fighting for their countries. In semi-darkness, we see a wonderful transformation of the garden blossoming into life, and, within it, the troubled relationships of the interconnecting characters are unpeeled in an astonishing tour de force of ensemble acting of the highest order.
The play has a visceral force as it builds. The script is full of wit, comedy and satire delivered with rapier-like sharpness, especially by Audrey in clashes with her daughter, Zara (Charlotte Hope).
Mike Bartlett covers the class and age divide, migration, Brexit and servitude. And when it comes to the Almeida’s own audience, mostly white, middle-aged, well-heeled, Telegraph-reading, ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’-listening and Waitrose-shopping customers, it doesn’t pull any punches. There are lots of below-the-belt lines fired during the course of the play: one of the characters comments on Audrey's successful business enterprise that it seems to centre on producing white items sold in white shops to white customers, with no black ones in sight. There was uncomfortable uproarious laughter at this before the audience had time to realise that many of them were its target.
For me, the play had more than echoes of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, with the comings and goings of family and friends dismantling each other during the duration of the play. And there was a scene very reminiscent, perhaps too reminiscent, of Billie Piper’s memorable rain-sodden mud-rolling moment in the Young Vic’s wonderful Yerma.
Albion is a great piece of theatre and will do well.