Mike Bartlett’s new play Albion is essentially The Cherry Orchard for Brexit Britain. And much like The Cherry Orchard, I found myself wanting to shout at everyone onstage to get a grip and find a real problem.
The premise in brief: upper class London businesswoman Audrey has decided to move to the country and renovate the gardens of an old country house, claiming it represents something important historically, and she has a duty to restore it to its former glory.
Along for the ride are her laidback husband Paul and her frustrated daughter Zara, who misses being a London socialite. Also in the mix are Audrey’s old friend Catherine, young Gabriel from the village, and an aging couple named Matthew and Cheryl who have tended the house for many years.
Audrey has big ideas about England and what it should stand for. Zara interns in big publishing houses and feels vaguely disaffected. Catherine is a successful novelist who worries she’s written about life rather than experienced it. Edward next door is concerned that the garden will no longer be open to village fetes.
I’m trying not to sound too anti-posh as I say this: but who cares? Literally who cares?? I know there’s zero critical consensus on whether Chekhov intended his plays as the deep emotional tragedies we see in English productions, or as farcical piss-takes of the useless bourgeoisie, but I know which one I’d prefer to see. I spent the entirety of the Mitchell/Stephens Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic wishing that the pointless family’s demise would come quicker. I spent most of Albion hoping for the same. And I won't harp on the political themes too long as better writers have covered it, but I don't think the state of the nation play I was hoping for in these troubled times was one tackling the question of what rich selfish white people think of Brexit.
In fairness, the underpinning of Audrey’s whole frantic renovation project is the death of her soldier son James two years previous, killed by a roadside explosion. That’s a real problem by anyone’s reckoning, but much like Ranevskaya mourning her son whilst still playing the mighty aristocrat, Audrey’s love of bossing around ‘servants’ and deifying traditional British values aren’t really excused by her legitimate grief. If we were meant to hate Audrey, I could understand. But I think we’re meant to find common ground with her, or at least feel sorry for her, and that’s something I don’t think Albion earned.
I found most of the characters deeply, deeply unsympathetic. And don’t get me wrong, a play doesn’t have to have sympathetic characters to be enjoyable (Bartlett’s Bull proved that beautifully), but I felt Albion asked for an emotional connection that I couldn’t find. Not only in the selfish Audrey but in the rest of them too. Her daughter Zara is a privileged Muswell Hill aspiring writer who interns at fancy publishing houses and complains a lot. Relatable, she is not. Audrey’s wry husband Paul is an oddly absent presence onstage, there to make a few jokes and then appear at the end for an out-of-character declaration of love for his wife. Cheryl and Matthew are straight out of central casting, only there to talk about the good old days in their thick country accents.
And then there’s Gabriel, local boy and aspiring writer. I think Gabriel was the character most meant to evoke our pity (my audience did a lot of awwwing whenever he came on) but why? His sole defining character trait was being in love with Zara and he fell for her before he even knew her. And he never gets to know her, he just knows her beauty, something Zara basically points out herself in one scene. And yet we’re supposed to feel some kind of way about his anger at the end that Zara never read his stories or ‘put them in front of’ her literary contacts, to the extent that he burnt all his work before coming to see her. Even though she owed him nothing and it wasn’t her job to manage his career. His parting lines are the bitter prediction of his future being that: "I'll make coffee. Then I'll manage people making coffee." Yeah, if you want Gabe. Or you could send your writing off yourself and see what people think. Or you could waste the rest of your life blaming a pretty girl you met a handful of times for not prioritising your career over everything she had going on in her busy life. Your choice, pal.
It’s not a terrible play, by any means. The acting is uniformly terrific, there’s a few excellent jokes, and the garden set is gorgeous. I liked Helen Schlesinger’s regretful Catherine, and the final argument scene between her and Audrey is explosively engaging. Catherine’s love affair with Zara added an interesting female dynamic to the usual older man/younger woman onstage relationship. And I was mesmerised by the end of the first half when Vinette Robinson’s Anna, soaked by rain and covered in mud, chases her long dead lover across the stage.
In fact, Anna was the only character to give me hope of this play being something more than a story of unearned privilege in decline. Much has been rightly made of the actress rubbing soil into her vagina – the soil where Audrey scattered James’ ashes – and it’s only seconds later onstage that Anna triumphantly tells Audrey she’s pregnant. Despite this bizarre choice, I became excited during the interval at the new direction Albion had taken – a delusional pregnancy born of extreme grief, Audrey’s chickens coming home to roost from shutting Anna out and pushing her to the edge. But when the play restarted, Anna really was pregnant, with some conveniently frozen sperm James had left behind. And we went back to Audrey’s problems.
Maybe I’m just judging Bartlett by his past plays, which is unfair. But there’s none of the sharp, coruscating wit that characterised Cock. None of the queasy menace and adrenaline of Bull. The only time I felt close to electrified was when Anna was onstage telling Audrey what for. When she spits about the “nasty, nasty” way James died, or brutally informs Audrey that she ruined her son’s life, and then her son’s death; I felt a genuine sense of something unpredictable and dangerous. Or maybe I just wanted the chance to shout at Audrey myself.