Review - Albion returns to the Almeida Theatre
Beautiful country gardens can blossom with age; they can also wither and degenerate, of course, depending on how well they are managed and cared for. The same is true of plays; so it's a particular pleasure to welcome this 2017 Almeida hit back to its original home, where its bracing portrait of a grieving mother trying to make sense of changes in her life registers even more poignantly, re-opening just days after Britain officially left the EU.
Meanwhile, the garden that occupies the great tongue of a stage that been created at the Almeida with the audience wrapped around three sides of it, undergoes multiple changes itself across the evening, in Miriam Buether's alternately stark and ravishing design.
As its superb star Victoria Hamilton - who deservedly won the 2017 Critics Circle Theatre Award for Best Actress for this performance - says in an interview in The Times about its return now, "When we were rehearsing it the first time around, people kept calling it 'that Brexit play'. But the writing is so rich, it's like revisiting a Chekhov or a Shakespeare."
The Chekhovian reference is very apt - it's one I made myself in my original review on this site - in its lingering sense of a trying to hold onto and restore a vanishing age. As with The Cherry Orchard, there's also the prospect of destroying this estate and dividing it up into smaller plots for modern homes.
But the play also has a timeless relevance and churning intensity about the process of change - and how a brittle woman fails in trying to manage it, alienating in turn the long-serving housekeeper and her gardener husband, her own daughter and best friend in turn.
So it's a spellbinding portrait of character as well as the evolution of life in a country house, and Hamilton is even more ferocious and desperate in her attempts to control things she simply can't. But though she dominates the proceedings, director Rupert Goold surrounds her with a superb ensemble, partially re-cast since the last time, to animate people she variously alienates, apart from Nicholas Rowe as her devotedly and doggedly loyal husband.
Angel Coulby, new to the role of Anna, is heart-breaking as an adrift woman, also lost in grief for the partner she lost, and seeking to re-anchor her life by moving into his family home. Meanwhile, Daisy Edgar-Jones, also new as daughter Zara, has a fresh-faced grace, and her sudden relationship with Helen Schlesinger's novelist, 30 years her senior, is entirely plausible.
I awarded the play four stars last time around, but I'm now going up to five stars: seeing it again showed me how carefully and richly this dramatic garden has been planted, and its flowering now is a thing of devastating feeling and beauty.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner