The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Autumn 2017
In 1925 American playwright George Kelly wrote Craig's Wife, about a woman so obsessed with creating the perfect home that she sacrificed marriage, family, friends and morality to achieve it, leaving her at the end in her perfect house, tragically alone.
Mike Bartlett may not even know Kelly's play, but in Albion he has written essentially the same story set in an English country garden.
And the change, along with Bartlett's more complex vision and ambition, makes all the difference. Kelly wrote a chilling study in pathological psychology. Bartlett does that and much more.
A successful businesswoman has inherited a country house once famous for its elaborate gardens, and determines to recreate them.
To this end she is willing to risk bankruptcy, alienate the villagers, abuse her workers, destroy her daughter's happiness, ruin her best friend's reputation, alienate her dead son's girlfriend, cut herself off from her grandchild, and push her loyal husband's dedication to its limits.
It is an imposing and ultimately frightening portrait, and Victoria Hamilton gives a passionate but subtly nuanced performance, taking the woman step by step from dedication through obsession to madness.
But there are several other layers to the woman's story and Bartlett's play, the most significant hinted at in the title.
The gardens, it turns out, are not 18th-century classics but date back only as far as the 1920s, and the woman's memories are filtered through a child's romanticising in the 1970s. She is nostalgic for something that she never actually saw and that was a bit of a fraud to begin with.
It is no great leap – and the playwright gives us other clues to guide us – to see Albion as a jaundiced look at the myths of Englishness, a cultural inheritance we commit ourselves to with increasing desperation even as we come to suspect it is not and perhaps never was real.
(It is no accident that the one character in the play with the brightest future is a Polish immigrant with no cultural anchors slowing her down.)
Victoria Hamilton's performance is certainly a strong candidate for best of the year, but she does not function in a vacuum. Under Rupert Goold's nuanced direction and imaginative staging the entire large cast give strong support, with especially powerful characterisations by Helen Schlesinger as the old friend and Nicholas Rowe as the husband.
Albion is not a perfect play. At three hours it is overlong and repetitive, and an admirably Chekhovian desire to give every secondary character his or her own subplot and potential tragedy sometimes threatens to draw focus away from the centre.
But if what you want from drama is a story and characters you can believe and relate to on a purely human level, along with resonances that inspire thoughts and feelings on larger themes, Albion may well offer one of your most satisfying theatrical experiences of the year.
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