Digital Theatre review: Albion
Ivan Radford | On 10, Sep 2020
“I haven’t heard of anyone falling in love for ages,” says Audrey halfway through Albion. It’s not a comment made with a swooning excitement or fond warmth; it’s a spluttering, bewildered outburst, one filled with disgust and suspicion. And that sets the tone for the Mike Barlett’s play, an excellent, acerbic, astute study of Britishness – now, in the past and in the future.
“It’s nostalgia,” Audrey reasons of the age gap being discussed. “For the potential.” And just like the unexpected, jarring relationship that she is confronted with, Albion brings us face to face with the current national situation – a divided sense of identity that’s drawn, on some level, to the potential of the past, of a younger Britain.
It’s this ability to balance human drama and state-of-the-nation commentary that makes Bartlett’s 2017 play a success. Written in the shadow of Brexit negotiations, and brought back to the Almeida Theatre in the aftermath of Britain officially leaving the European Union, it’s a timely, thoughtful exploration of the issues surrounding the UK’s conscious uncoupling from the continent that surrounds it, but one that doesn’t bash your head with political debates or withdrawal agreement dissections; it is, first and foremost, a family drama.
And what a family it is. Audrey, now in her 50s, moves from London to the country, where she aims to revamp an old pile that she remembered from her childhood. Front and centre of that restoration is the garden – a symbolic, outward-facing piece of our green and pleasant land. It carries added poignancy because it’s also the place she wants to use to memorialise her son, who died in a war overseas.
She’s supported, in a way, by her husband (Nicholas Rowe) and proves frustrating for her daughter, Zara (Daisy Edgar-Jones), who misses city life. And, in between them all, are Audrey’s old friend, Katherine (Helen Schlesinger), a successful author, and her son’s bereaved girlfriend (Vinette Robinson). They all bring their own desires, tensions and conflicts, which Audrey both acknowledges and dismisses in her self-centred quest to achieve her own goals – goals that leave her torn between the tradition of an English cleaner and the valued efficiency of Krystyna, a Polish cleaner.
The resulting twists and turns of the ensemble drama frequently recall the contrivances of Bartlett’s hit BBC One drama Doctor Foster, but there’s a compelling soap opera vibe to the superbly acted confrontations – Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones is particularly excellent, while Helen Schlesinger almost steals every scene she’s in. But this is Victoria Hamilton’s show, and she is remarkable as Audrey, a bundle of neuroses, contradictions, confusion and resentment, someone juggling grief, obsession and trauma with a combination of amusing one-liners, scathing insults and facial expressions that can break your heart.
The play, of course, takes its title from Great Britain’s old name, and decay and decline are as rife as the class divides that run through the middle of this fertile theatrical ground. It’s echoed through Miriam Buether’s superb set design, which uses the actors and scene changes to plant and nurture the garden – a living portrait of things evolving, moving on and starting over. And yet that also reinforces the intimate, personal scale of the drama – one very intimate moment with the grass is perhaps a step too far – and Albion’s knack for using characters to consider larger issues without losing its human edge makes for a timely, gripping, accomplished piece of theatre.
Albion is available on BBC iPlayer until Wednesday 16th September.
I Am Not Your Negro is available on BBC iPlayer until March 2021