Hot on the heels of Saint George and the Dragon, the National Theatre’s rather cack-handed allegory about modern Britain, comes an altogether more nuanced look at the intricacies and eccentricities of the British psyche.
This new play by Mike Bartlett – an exceptional writer at the peak of his powers, having recently written Doctor Foster and King Charles III for TV – follows Audrey Warner, a hyper-successful, Mary Portas figure who uproots her family and disrupts her successful retail business by moving to a grand old country house. She’s drawn by its garden, designed by a legendary landscape architect and once considered the height of sophistication until it fell into disrepair. Audrey plans to restore it to its former glory, and, with her boot-straps attitude, it looks like she might just succeed.
What seems like a straight-forward plot is made labyrinthine by an ensemble cast, with half a dozen fully developed characters, all with overlapping motivations, dreams and desires.
The entire play takes place in the garden. Here, we learn that Audrey has surreptitiously scattered her dead son’s ashes, much to the consternation of his grieving, unstable partner. We see a local boy fall madly in love with Audrey’s enchantingly beautiful daughter, and then her daughter fall for her mum’s (female) best mate, a wonderfully flouncy writer played with brilliant comic poise by Helen Schlesinger.
Everybody yearns for something or someone. Young Cambridge graduate Zara yearns for more than the middle-class life laid before her; middle-aged writer Katherine yearns for her youth; young window cleaner Gabriel dreams of going to university; Polish cleaner Krystyna is set on owning a business empire; Audrey’s ageing cleaners long for the days when young Poles weren’t putting their work ethic to shame.
Each one reflects a different aspect of modern England, with various ideological battles playing out between the lines: progressive versus conservative, Tory versus Labour, new versus old. The play coaxes us to consider what it means to be British, and whether that’s the same thing it once was. But it’s no polemic: these characters are plausible and likeable, each one complex, struggling against inner anxieties and the strains of modern life. Nobody in Albion is perfect but neither is anybody entirely wrong.
At the heart of it all is Victoria Hamilton, who is captivating in the lead role, bringing a softness and fragility to her otherwise rampant Thatcherite character; she’s an ornate glass paper-weight forever on the verge of being knocked onto the concrete below.
Albion is a production in which the strongest elements hide in plain sight. On the face of it, Miriam Buether’s set, a catwalk of astroturf leading up to a tree, is merely pretty. And yet it’s utterly transportive; musical interludes in which the cast plant roses in borders around the stage bring a tear to the eye.
Aside from one slightly jarring scene at the end of the first half, which involves something resembling contemporary dance and had the audience tittering like school-children as they queued for the bar, this production is virtually flawless. I can’t remember enjoying a night at the theatre more.