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Albion

7 Aug

Mike Bartlett’s Albion is a piece of theatre on a grand scale: nearly three hours of stage time and a plethora of well-drawn characters.

This level of ambition is thrilling.

No prize for guessing where a play called Albion is set. It’s a foreign play; a state-of-the-nation play where the nation portrayed is not ours. This is Britain post-Brexit: a wealthy woman buys a rural property with the intention of redeveloping it’s once famous garden. (In the first draft, were they raising a bulldog?) The villagers (yes, that’s what they’re called) are disappointed that the new owner won’t fulfil her customary role; she won’t host their festivals in her garden. The woman’s family are divided about the London they’ve left behind: has it become a temple of mammon, or is it a life-giving alternative to a country grave?

And it’s all a very conscious homage to Chekhov. Yes, it’s a garden, not a cherry orchard – but there is a Firs, the old servant lost amongst the flux ( This Firs is called Matthew, and is played with moving poignancy by Mark Langham.) And, like The Seagull, those on the rural estate are visited by a famous writer who causes mayhem among those with artistic ambitions but less success.

State-of-the-nation plays are an odd genre; though grounded in realism, they reach to the symbolic. And what odd things symbols are: invested with meaning by who, for who, for how long? Once, I asked a young person what a lion might symbolise – and was told paddle pops.

So, what about the performances? Excellent. Director Lucy Clements gives us inspiring depth and breadth. Joanna Briant as Audrey, the matriarch, is a masterclass in glib superiority; a thought-provoking posing of the tragic question at the core of materialist societies: must success murder empathy? The visiting writer ….. and there are a lot of writers in these sort of plays: three in this one, out of a cast of eleven; a rather inflated sample, considering writers usually fill the same percentile of the population as serial killers ….. the visiting writer is played by Deborah Jones with a gorgeously warm charisma, providing her with ample space to growl when the going gets tough. Rhiaan Marquez as Zara, Audrey’s daughter, beautifully balances youthful exuberance with youthful naivete.  Jane Angharad’s Anna grieves for her lover, Audrey’s son, with powerful truthfulness. (The dead son, too, becomes a sort of symbol: a lost England to dispute over, under a very English heaven.) James Smithers as Gabriel offers a superb character arc, like a piece of lost space junk that ultimately burns with a searing white heat when it drifts into the orbit of a more imposing body. Charles Mayer as Paul, Audrey’s husband, gives a performance of gentle intelligence. Paul maintains his safe orbit, as all things do, by allowing change to be dictated by that more imposing body.

Due to popular demand, this season has been extended. (Gardens have a way of growing.)

Paul Gilchrist

Albion by Mike Bartlett

Seymour Centre until Aug 20 https://www.seymourcentre.com/

Image by Clare Hawley