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Theatre Albion, Almeida Theatre London

State of the nation takes root in an English country garden

THIS fine play from Mike Bartlett is wonderful theatre.  

As the audience settles around the protruding set of a country garden, a first world war soldier wanders around the lawn and, picking up the soil of his country, inhales it like dope — a metaphor for what’s to come.  

Enter 21st-century Audrey (Victoria Hamilton) who has left her business life in London to return and live in the place which has nostalgic connections with her childhood — its seductive comforts and reluctance for change — despite her constantly professing its importance.  

She is stuck in grief for a son killed two years back in a pointless foreign war that she believed in.  Audrey has “principles,” to which she remains as attached as her son’s partner Anna (Angel Coulby) is to her lover’s memory.  

This juxtaposition of submerged and volcanic grief is superb and Anna’s emotional meltdown has the power of a Lear. But she carries the future. Frozen sperm, ashes and soil are the organic ingredients in the “biological warfare” between mother and lover.

Profound stuff and although the unborn child represents the future, the mother — as “owner” of her children — cannot accept it.

Rude mechanicals, gardener Matthew (Geoffrey Freshwater) and his cleaner wife Cheryl (Margot Leicester), are a terrific double act, with their old retainer loyalty juxtaposed with the more efficient and cost-effective Polish cleaner Krystyna (Edyta Budnik). A nice thread, showing a wider change in social relations.

But it’s not a tangent, unlike the affair between famous writer Katherine (Helen Schlesinger) and Audrey’s daughter, wannabe writer Zara (Daisy Edgar-Jones), which enables Bartlett to have fun poking around at the creative writing industry.

He even has Gabriel, the gardener’s son, offered a place at Oxford to “do” creative writing and I’d like to see more of this in another play — this one has enough to deal with.   

Yet Katherine, an old friend of Audrey, illuminates Audrey’s character as neurotic and controlling, revealing too the reactionary nature of much of the entrepreneurial world. Gabriel (Donal Finn) has to abandon his course to work at Costa, as he can’t afford the fees.  

Change for his class is regressive, although he will have the opportunity to not only “make coffee but, one day, manage people who make coffee.”   

All the performances, sound and lighting are excellent and as the cast plant the stage border with plants — they’re real and smell lovely — as a time-shift interlude to help the complexities slip down, Rupert Goold’s direction pulls the elements together in this state-of-the nation play.

Runs until February 29, box office: almeida.co.uk

 

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