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Review: Albion (Almeida Theatre)

Mike Bartlett's play returns to the venue after its initial run in 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Victoria Hamilton in Albion
© Marc Brenner

For most theatres across the country, reviving a critically lauded production is usually seen as doubling down on a tried-and-tested smash hit – bringing in the punters for a second round. But for the Almeida's second staging of Mike Bartlett's Albion, it's something altogether more radical – it's the first play in a very long while, under artistic director Rupert Goold at least, to get a fresh outing at the north London theatre, which notably either transfers its plays to the West End or lets them pass into theatre history.

But you get the sense from Albion that there's some unfinished business that needs tackling – not least given the themes simmering away at the centre of Bartlett's play. In the years since it was first presented, battle lines have been drawn and remapped, Parliament Square has been occupied by protesters of all persuasions and the political establishment has jostled with increasing freneticism to win the hearts of the nation. The three-hour piece is a heady, assured concoction that stares the anarchic paradox of contemporary Britain in the face and delivers a suitably anarchic, paradoxical play to match it.

Driving the action is Audrey (Victoria Hamilton), a busy-bodied businesswoman and matriarch who ups sticks from a cushty pad in Muswell Hill to buy up an old seven-bedroom country house in Oxfordshire, replete with a plethora of overgrown gardens. Audrey ruffles every necessary feather along the way, inviting the wrath of the cleaning lady – who is less efficient than the younger, cheaper, more effective eastern European worker who lives nearby – and denying locals access to the gardens after they were used for years as a communal space for events and festivals. Cosmopolite meets middle-England country-dweller.

Bartlett, as ever, writes thorny, succulent characters that grate against one another like different fingernails on the same blackboard. There's Audrey's despondent 20-something daughter Zara (a fantastic stage debut from Daisy Edgar-Jones), hidden behind a cigarette fume smokescreen as she pines to return to the capital. Local late-teen Gabriel (Dỏnal Finn, endearingly chipper with some comedy bangers) cleans the house's windows and dreams of forging a path as a writer, while Anna (a fraught, wild Angel Coulby) – the girlfriend of Audrey's late soldier son – feels simultaneously tethered to the family and ostracised by her slowly wavering connection to the group. There's some stellar comedy support provided by Nicholas Rowe's Paul, always ready with a zinger to defuse a situation.

But there's no denial that it's Hamilton's Audrey who constantly holds the piece together, a whirligig of jingoistic enthusiasm that never for a second masks the underlying melancholy that shimmers below. It's hard to fault the Critics' Circle for celebrating her performance back in 2018.

And hovering over it all is the B-word – the same word that was on everyone's lips back in 2017. Bartlett has basically written a Schrödinger's state-of-the-nation play – simultaneously about Brexit and not. On the one hand the long stretch of Miriam Buether's beautiful turf-topped set, slowly blossoming with the installation of dozens and dozens of plants, is a rather opaque symbol for mainland England, and, as Audrey cuddles a budding rose at the close of the show, it's hard to miss the underlying nods. But there's something distinctly Chekhovian about proceedings – the saddening and private decay of an unconventional family unit, drawn towards a rural, nostalgic idyll but only finding the same messy, overgrown problems that sprout up wherever they're based. An estate-of-the-nation, then.

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