Beginning starts at the end. A Crouch End party has just finished and the sitting room is a waste tip of punctured beer cans, tortured napkins and crushed nibbles. Wine bottles lie scattered across the carpet like fallen ninepins. Hostess Laura invites her last guest, Danny, for a final glass of Chardonnay. Twitchy conversation ensues. Then she tells him point-blank that she’s fallen in love with him, even though they’ve only just met. He rejects her weird come-ons (‘Kiss me, you lemon’) with evasive hyperactivity. He dashes about the room filling a bin-liner with defunct wine bottles and pulverised cheesy Wotsits. She forces him to sit next to her on the sofa, where he squirms and flips like a beached haddock.
What’s wrong with him? Why doesn’t he leap into the arms of his midnight seductress? It turns out that both characters harbour a secret. Laura is a broody sperm-burglar seeking impregnation. Danny is a divorced dad, cut off from his child, who fears fathering any more kids. This makes more sense, but the pair just don’t look like a couple. Laura is a successful corporate executive with the poise of Jackie Onassis and the intellect of Katharine Hepburn. If she were really a nipper-hungry singleton (which seems improbable for starters), she’d recruit the help of a gay designer with a high IQ and a sense of style. Instead she lights on Danny, a thick, fat Tory boy from Essex who lives with his mum. Though he claims to be a graduate of Bristol University, he has the gormless air of a teenage arsonist trying to get matey with his probation officer. His conversational sallies include the following: ‘I’m friends on Facebook with my nan’; ‘Some cunt stubbed a fag out on your carpet’; and ‘My mum likes a bit of kiwi fruit on her porridge.’ To complete the picture of suburban depravity, he has a puke stain down his nylon shirt. What a catch.
However, there are gems hidden in their banal dialogue. Laura makes some funny and perceptive speeches about being fertile but childless. She hates spending Sundays alone and she longs to own a people-carrier and to scan newspaper adverts for Caribbean cruises. I’m afraid this sluggish two-hander was entirely lost on me. The press-night crowd tittered faithfully at all the jokes and roared like lions at the end. A hit, perhaps.
Writers are wary of imitating Chekhov because the failure rate is so high. Mike Bartlett has taken a risk with his new play, Albion, a self-conscious homage to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, in which a battle for dynastic succession is played out over a patch of bucolic real estate.
A crumbling mansion has been snapped up by Audrey Walters, a millionaire businesswoman, who plans to refurbish the place at a cost of millions. Her obsession is the once-famous garden, where she scatters the ashes of her dead son. His grief-stricken fianceé, Anna, shows up unexpectedly and haunts the lawn as if she owns it. Perhaps she knows something. Audrey’s closest friend, Katherine, a fêted novelist, arrives and starts an affair with Audrey’s daughter, Kara. This spells disaster for Audrey’s matriarchal ambitions. With a dead son and a lesbian daughter she has no bloodline.
The thrilling first half is a skilfully orchestrated series of narrative explosions, which culminates in a brilliantly concealed revelation about Anna’s affair with Audrey’s son. The second half is a bit of a disappointment. The tone is quieter, the action less intense, and the narrative ingenuity has gone. All the characters seem like ghosts of their former selves. Even Audrey, the Thatcherite whirlwind, has become a fretful wuss by the end of the play.
But overall this is a highly effective Chekhov facsimile. Bartlett gets a lot of it right — the emotional intensity, the sudden shifts from tragedy to dark humour, and the subtly graded divisions between the grumbling staff and their presumptuous overlords. He hasn’t quite reached the peaks of the Russian master. Chekhov never under-utilises a character, but Bartlett can’t find a proper function for Audrey’s vapid husband, Paul, who pootles around the lawn like a driverless golf-buggy. (Chekhov would have given him a doomed crush on the sexy Polish maid.)
The direction, by Rupert Goold, is pretty effective apart from the climax of the first act, which involves a fertility dance performed by a demented sexpot smearing her breasts with Homebase peat. And there’s a laborious ‘horticulture’ scene, where the company, at full muster, bustle on and off stage embedding dozens of flowers. Later, they unearth them all. The plants look plastic. So does the effect.
The show’s star, Victoria Hamilton, is terrific as the monstrous but captivating Audrey. Hamilton’s eerie, doll-like face is suffused with volcanic impulses like thunder on a summer’s day. Her character feels like something fresh, dreadful and enduring in the theatre.