I wasn’t sure about this one. Young British playwright pens a story about a group called the English Protection Army and sets it in an East End Pub. The name of the pub and title of the play is heavy with symbolism – Albion. It is as powerful a representation of Englishness as the St. George’s red and white flag bunting draped around the bar, it being the earliest recognised name for England and, later, for Great Britain. Think King Arthur. Albion comprised the lands surrounding Camelot which Arthur was destined to unite into a medieval nirvana.
Alternative mythology has the name based on an ancient root word meaning ‘white’, after the chalk cliffs of the south-east English coast. Fascinating, but still, not making me any surer of wanting to see this production.
I am so glad I did.
The cast is talented and committed, which is absolutely essential to free the audience into being receptive to themes they might not be comfortable with. Some cast members take on multiple parts convincingly (Nicola Harrison and Paul Ham). The four main protagonists are captivating as their stories unfold – Jayson Ryman (Tony Clay), older brother Paul Ryman (Steve John Shepherd), ex-social worker Christine (Natalie Casey) and Delroy Atkinson as Kyle, Paul’s deputy. This play puts current affairs central to each character’s story, as it asks, “When they embrace diversity, how far can the far right go?”
Though united in the EDA, they all seem to want different things: Jayson and his almost pathological love of Karaoke; Paul and his impassioned speeches in defence of England and Englishness, yearning to intellectualise the cause; Kyle, the voice between Paul and the EDA faithful, wanting to fight for the cause; Poppy Ryman stationed overseas; Christine rendered impotent in her job and knowing the power of perception and spin, is then forced to face the consequences. Amidst the cross-cultural relationships and their acceptability (one involving Aashir – Dhamesh Patel) and the perceptions of labelling only certain crimes as racial, Albion is a play about the intricacies of identity and notions of happiness.
“This is not the country I was promised!” one character shouts, frustrated – which character might surprise you.
Playwright Chris Thompson and director Ria Parry manage to make you care about these not entirely likeable characters. Truly, as an audience member, you are left feeling fickle and slightly shallow. As each point of view swings centrally, you find yourself sympathising, even as their manipulation of those around them are plainly hurtful, even damaging; even as they succumb to manipulation themselves to their own detriment; even as they suffer humiliations facing the truths of their ultimately very small, very isolated, existence.
Because they have drawn out these emotional reactions with virtually every monologue, you are left contemplating how much of ‘your’ beliefs are, in fact ‘yours’; how attraction, whether idealistic, platonic, sexual or romantic, can render you malleable, and whether you might have allowed someone to sway your convictions. Then, throughout, he uses the dirtiest emotional trick of all which, arguably, has not been so skilfully employed in theatre since Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Palace Theatre, London, 2009-11). Whilst giving dramatic relief at times, it can also sharpen the senses. Great stuff!
Delroy Atkinson and Natalie Casey give probably the most even performances, their simmering anger quiet and malevolent next to Shepherd’s vein-popping oratory crescendos and Clay’s frenetic turns in the spotlight Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays… The dialogue is absorbing and believable and, even when you think the cast have brilliantly ad-libbed, as I did with a particular exchange between Jayson and Kyle, I am assured they haven’t.
There is a lot of profanity, use of pretty offensive labels, a sprinkling of violence and a few sexually charged scenes, but honestly, it adds to the grit of the story and a commitment to authenticity. It is also a testament to how talented stage management of an intimate space and quality actors can still convince an audience of a complete scene change from what appears to be a dreary spit ‘n’ sawdust pub (which actually has tired old carpet flooring). There was even some use of social media to great effect.
On its surface, Albion presents the question of what it means to be English and the nature of English pride, made all the more poignant because press night came the day after Scotland voted to remain British and political questions of Englishness were being thrown up. But, because the question stems from a dark, irresolute place – an internal state, so far from Arthur’s Albion, which modern society has created, but failed to provide coping mechanisms for – the story doesn’t give an answer.
If ever there was a production which begins to examine the plight of the Precariat, Albion is it. See this play!
Precariat: noun; a social class consisting of people suffering from precarity – a state of existence lacking predictability or security, which affects material or psychological well-being (sociology and economics).
Albion runs at the Bush Theatre, a converted old library in Shepherd’s Bush, from 12th September – 25th October. Visit Bush Theatre for tickets.