Thursday, 19 October 2017

Review Albion

by Mike Bartlett

Stab In The Book

Successful entrepreneur Audrey Walters gives up a life in metropolitan London, buying back a family home amid the birdsong of  the English countryside, bringing cynical but supportive husband Paul and Cambridge graduate daughter Zara in tow.

She becomes evangelical in her rather desperate mission to revive a once-celebrated garden created in the twilight decades of the British Empire and remembered from her youth in the 1970s.

Albion is a strange, bitter mishmash which strives to be a weighty history and state-of-the nation drama. In fact, for TLT and her own 21st state-of-the-art motorised sidekick, it felt rather dated despite the insertion of a few Brexit references.

Audrey (Victoria Hamilton), having founded an apparently flourishing furnishings business, appears to have had her head turned in a Bovaryesque way by literary romance and a very British deluded concept of family heritage.

She rushes in where many a lesser soul would fear to tread and becomes an unwitting agent of change in the village.

From the title, Albion, an ancient name for Britain also adopted by Romantic poet William Blake, you might expect an exploration of Britishness. However Mike Bartlett's drama deals more in on-the-nose (or should that be nosegay?!) metaphors and token gestures towards its many themes. 

There are plenty of literary references but nothing to copyright home about. It could have been an agile, sly but touching satire. However it becomes a scattergun, lumbering play with contrived conflicts and simplistic viewpoints.

Directed by Rupert Goold most of the characters - and they are explicitly identified with past literature and a rather troubling ultimate identification of the feminine with novelistic insanity without any proper context  - give expositional speeches.

That's all, except for Audrey's bestselling novelist friend Katherine (Helen Schlesinger) whose words, in contrast  need to be treated with caution. As with Audrey's business, the nature of Katherine's talent and her financial set up appear somewhat hazy. However she appears to churn out novels with romantic aplomb without an editor or any such mundane publishing accoutrements.

Zara (the name of a shop! the name of a royal!) has aspirations to be - what else? - a writer. Despite her mother's achievements, Zara (Charlotte Hope) embodies the work and housing problems of graduates eternally on placements, never getting a job, and sleeping on a friend's couch. Ha, another theme ticked off!

Meanwhile the garden with its tall and sturdy English oak, is haunted by the ghosts of two male wartime casualties (shades of another property-based play, Clybourne Park with its Korean veteran ghost), separated by a century.

Nevertheless, for TLT, Albion remained inorganic despite the best efforts of designer Miriam Bluether,  with a turfed traverse stage alongside lighting designer Neil Austin and sound from Gregory Clarke, to give it a cycle-of-the-seasons feel.

In its machine-like churning out of themes - and its length! - it did bear some resemblance to A Day By The Sea, currently on a run in South London - but far more smug.

While something again of a stereotype, the most interesting character and the story with the most promise is that of Krystyna (Edyta Budnik), the go-getting Polish cleaner who has set up her own efficient company.

She obviously has clients outside the boundaries of the rather tiresome house and grounds and there is the question mark over what will happen to her beliefs and business after 2019. 

Albion seems like a play that has been stretched out in all directions to be a big, meandering state-of-the-nation play, rather than growing some potentially interesting relationships into satisfying integrated drama.

The literary metaphors feel very self-consciously, rather than wittily, tacked on, so it becomes a case of spot-the-literary-reference.

The actors do their best with this big, baggy monster of a play but nothing can disguise its overblown nature for TLT and it's a lower-range amber light.    

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