Audrey (Victoria Hamilton) has left her snazzy design company in London for a very important project: renovating the garden of the new home she has bought in the country and which once belonged to her dead uncle.
Into this small green space, where the stage is itself an island surrounded on all sides by the audience, come all sorts of people: they include aspiring writer daughter Zara (Charlotte Hope, pictured bottom), Audrey’s novelist friend Katherine (Helen Schlesinger) and Gabriel (Luke Thallon), the local teenager who dreams himself of being a writer but who starts off with the modest idea of getting more work cleaning windows.
Most poignantly Anna (Vinette Robinson), the girlfriend of Audrey’s solder son James who was killed two years before in Afghanistan, is a sad and slightly spectral presence.
In the 1920s the garden’s original designer intended the space as a tribute to the fallen of the First World War and in its restoration Audrey wants it as a tribute to her dead son. That she scatters his ashes without telling anyone leads to one of the many flashpoints in this turbulent drama. The garden, once imagined as a haven for heroes, becomes a battlefield.
This play, beautifully directed by Rupert Goold, is unashamedly indebted to Chekhov – particularly his 1903 masterpiece The Cherry Orchard. And it’s a brave and bold stab by writer Mike Bartlett, the creator of TV his sensation Doctor Foster, to use a garden, this most English of metaphors, to tackle an array of our nation’s contemporary themes and anxieties.
Hamilton puts in a skilled and impressive performance over the three-hour course of this long and taxing play. Curt and self-centred, her performance also subtly conveys her kindness that lurks behind the brittleness. When she warns Katherine about not getting romantically involved with her daughter, the wisdom of her advice (and the impulse that drives it) becomes steadily apparent.
But there are also moments, like her refusal to allow the villagers to use the garden as they have for years, that point to her selfishness and small-mindedness. She is building a paradise but for the few and not the many.
There are few urgent subjects taxing Britain today that Bartlett doesn’t want to take on. The wealth divide, opportunity (Zara is privately educated, poor Gabriel is not), Brexit and immigration. She also hires a new Polish cleaner, Krystyna, displacing poor old Cheryl (the wife of veteran gardener Matthew) who has been with the house for decades.
Katherine as also written a vicious satirical novel (reminiscent of early Martin Amis) taking aim at Brexiteers who are given surnames like Numb and Smallmind. She defends herself stoically and passionately, but Bartlett is as even-handed with his characters as he is in his portrayal of the nation’s ills.
Katherine could easily be the heroine of this story, but Bartlett is too good a writer for that. There is also in her haughtiness a sense that she hasn’t quite got things right; she is also too stubborn and arrogant to see the potential disaster when she becomes romantically involved with Anna.
My sympathies over the evening were largely with Gabriel and Anna – the patronised outcasts in this uneasy idyll who are never really given much of a chance.
It’s an impressive and ambitious play, but sometimes you feel Bartlett has bitten off a bit more than he can chew. And there’s a slight lack of focus to the second half that doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of the brilliant first act, which culminates in the dazzling and troubling moment Anna runs about the garden in the rain in an emotionally fraught frenzy, stuffing the earth that contains her lover’s ashes into ever orifice in her body.
So while there’s no doubting the impressive ambition of this work it would be brilliant to see Bartlett return to the subject in a few years’ time…but with a little more fine tuning perhaps.
Albion is at the Almeida Theatre until November 24. Tickets. Visit here or call the box office: 020 7 359 4404