Audrey is about to turn 55 and feels like she is losing control of her life.
In the past few years, she’s faced a series of losses. Her first husband died, then her only son died at war, and now her only remaining child is growing up and pulling away from her. While her life looks good on the surface— a boring second husband who adores her, a team of staff working for her, a successful business— it leaves her feeling empty and purposeless.
Impulsively, Audrey (played by Joanna Briant) decides to uproot her family’s upper-class London life and move to Albion, a decadent but decrepit 7-bedroom country house famous for its once-thriving gardens. For ageing Audrey, this house and its gardens represent both a personal nostalgia (her uncle owned the house when she was a child in the 1970s) and a national nostalgia (a romanticised image of 1920s England, when social classes were more stratified, and a pre-global warming climate allowed the gardens to thrive).
Mike Bartlett, the acclaimed British playwright known for the modern masterpiece King Charles III, is back with another tale of family and tradition. Albion, directed by Lucy Clements, produced by Secret House and New Ghosts Theatre Company and presented by the Seymour Centre, is a big undertaking— a sprawling three-hour work with eleven performers. The British play wrestles with a lot of compelling ideas about class, social change and finding one’s place in a changing world.
In Bartlett’s writing, Audrey’s renovations of the Albion gardens in her attempt to recreate the past and live in it. The garden lives as a metaphor for how she is trying—and failing— to control everything and everyone in her life. But the past that Audrey is striving for only exists as a romanticised idea in her head, and you get the sense from the start that her escapist ambitions may not be attainable.
At its core, Albion is a play about humans’ relationships to their environment, and how important and sentimental places can be, especially during times of grief. Clements has emphasised this theme of place by staging the entire play within Albion’s gardens. Monique Langford’s impressive evolving garden set is the best part of this production, lit beautifully by Kate Baldwin’s lighting designs. Through the imagery of the Albion gardens in various stages of dishevelment and bloom, Clements and Langford meaningfully illustrate Audrey’s ambitions and her failures—both in restoring this garden, and in her life more broadly.
For Audrey, Albion house and its gardens means a lot to her personally, but also in terms of big ideas about civilisation and nature. Bartlett’s play draws on the long tradition of great English houses that goes back centuries. We, as settler Australians, have only been living on this colonised land for a short time, and don’t have the same relationship to old houses as the British. However, we can still relate to the very personal nature of Audrey’s story.
Coordinating such a large cast in an indie production is a difficult challenge, and I’m not sure Clements fully manages it. The play is most compelling and authentic during heated, personal exchanges between two or three individuals. But when large groups of characters gather on stage (as happens often in the first act), the actors are placed awkwardly, standing in a stiff semicircle as if waiting to say their lines.
There is also quite a gap between the most talented performers and the least impressive. Fortunately, Joanna Briant as Audrey sits at the top end of that spectrum and carries the emotional weight of the show on her shoulders with skill. Briant imbues Audrey with so much care and humanity. Even when Audrey is being nasty and cruel, you still sympathise with her, because you understand her behaviour comes from a place of loneliness and anxiety.
Mark Langham is another standout performer, playing Matthew, the ageing gardener who depends on the Albion gardens for his livelihood. Matthew is suffering some sort of dementia (it’s never explicitly named), while his wife Cheryl (Albion’s cleaner) is fighting cancer. Their characters function as a human reminder of the cost of social change, and the importance of welfare systems to care for society’s most vulnerable. Matthew and Cheryl have dedicated their lives to working for the Albion estate. But what happens to the staff when that house— a relic of a different age—becomes unaffordable to maintain? And what responsibility does Audrey have to her fellow townspeople and staff? When sickness and disease stop us from working, what do we owe one another?
Albion is an ambitious production of a formidable text that explores big ideas about humanity, class, family and social change. It’s a thought-provoking work of writing that has stayed with me all week. To successfully stage Bartlett’s intimidating and ideas-heavy text is a tall order, especially for an indie production, and Clements and the team have a real crack at it. An admirable attempt at a difficult text, Bartlett’s writing, combined with Briant’s lead performance and Langford’s thoughtful design makes this an impressive and thought-provoking night out at the theatre.