Almeida Theatre, London *****
They do produce some crackers at Rupert Goold’s Almeida. Say what you like about the plays – and they’re mostly four/five stars in any case – they, the productions, nearly always pack a hefty punch.
Goold’s previous, James Graham’s Ink, went on to enjoy its present run in the West End. For sheer entertainment value, I’ll be amazed if Mike Bartlett’s stirring eulogy for a disappearing but not completely gone England and Englishness doesn’t go the same way.
It’s funny the way these things go. Young tyro playwrights start off flaying the hides off crusty plays that have a beginning, middle and an end. They rage – rightly – against the fustiness of this world they’ve been born into and seek to change it.
Then comes a point – David Hare certainly had one in the late ‘80s with his very fine trilogy that included Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and Absence of War when he explored in detail the pillars of the English Establishment – the church, the judiciary and Westminster – but also found a nostalgic sweetness in amongst the nettles of political comings and goings.
Bartlett who has written crucifyingly lucid, gentle and brutal plays on marriage , sexuality, bullying in the workplace and most recently for the Almeida, the juicy and provocative King Charles III, has now penned an amazing paean to a fast disappearing English landscape.
And indeed the metaphor is, as it was at one time also for Stoppard, in an English garden. Where else do the English lavish their love and devotion, spend long hours ruminating, planning and generally finding stability from than their gardens?
A play for today, or rather state-of-a-nation, in flux, having identity issues, Bartlett interestingly uses a decaying garden as the hub on which to build a fascinating, woman-centred, beefy, old-fashioned in the sense of character-driven drama – a lens through which he can view such things as emotional and horticultural landscapes, political and even sexual ones.
We’re definitely in middle England – white, middle class England with a Chekhovian tinge in its old retainers – old Matthew the gardener, slow moving Cheryl (the wonderful Margot Leicester making a fully-fledged history out of almost nothing) – a bustling lady-of-the-manor, Audrey, determined to bring the house, all four bathrooms of it back to the former glory a WW1 hero created on his return from the war (Victoria Hamilton, superbly tart and waspish), and a passively, laconic husband, Paul (Nicholas Rowe, pitch perfect) – `along for the ride’.
Also included is Audrey’s wayward daughter, Zara, a typical `London’ product – maybe a budding writer as is young Gabriel who used to clean windows for the previous owner and also wants to `write’.
In true Chekhovian style, Gabriel (promising newcomer Luke Thallon) falls in love with Zara. But Zara in a rush of heroine worship for visiting successful novelist, Katherine (Audrey’s best friend) – and again, not dissimilar to Nina’s `crush’ on Chekhov’s careless writer in The Seagull (see review earlier this week) – falls headlong for Katherine (a cool, sardonic, sad but sexy Helen Schlesinger).
And here – and with Anna (the partner of James’s Audrey’s dead army son, killed in Iraq) – the sparks really begin to fly.
Goold’s production brings Barlett’s moments of high passion, frustration, hidden emotions, friendship betrayed and much more into the sharpest focus by means of a superb cast, the introduction of some seriously wonderful horticultural extras – the cast steadily planting boxes of flowers to demonstrate Audrey’s garden beginning to grow – and the deeply melancholic music of Vaughn Williams, Peter Gabriel, Royal Blood and soulful Nick Mulvey.
It’s hard to over-estimate the cumulative jolt that comes with Katherine and Zara’s sexual abandonment or the rain-soaked dance of desperate loss by Vinette Robinson’s Anna as she tries to summon back the spirit of her dead boy-friend.
Or the female battles between mother and daughter and mother and best friend.
Maybe the combination of Bartlett and Goold does slightly over-cook matters. And you could argue that post-Brexit, this feels very much like only a partial national analysis, given it is entirely white, middle-class make-up (with the exception of Matthew and Cheryl, Robinson’s mixed race, Anna) and the small but rather telling role of the Polish cleaner, Krystyna.
But such is the quality of the writing, the acting and melancholy that sits over the whole evening, it’s as if, had Elgar been alive now, this would have been the kind of word-portrait lament he might have painted, as he did musically in Enigma Variations – a disappearing England in the throes of change with a battling back-bone of England type, determined to `hold the line’ and preserve something for the future.
A new play by Mike Bartlett
Edward: Nigel Betts
Krystyna: Edyta Budnik
Weatherbury/James/Stanley: Will Coban
Matthew: Christopher Fairbank
Audrey Walters: Victoria Hamilton
Zara: Charlotte Hope
Cheryl: Margot Leicester
Anna: Vinette Robinson
Paul Walters: Nicholas Rowe
Katherine Sanchez: Helen Schlesinger
Gabriel: Luke Thallon
Direction: Rupert Goold
Design: Miriam Buether
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Associate Sound Designer: Jon Everett
Movement Director: Rebecca Frecknall
Associate Movement Director: Gemma Payne
Casting: Amy Ball
Casting Assistant: Arthur Carrington
Resident Director: Tom BrennanRebecca Frecknall
Costume Supervision: Anna Josephs
Dialect Coach: Charmian Hoare
World premiere of Albion at Almeida Theatre, Oct 10, 2017; and runs to Nov 24, 2017
Review published on this Oct 19, 2017