London Theater Reviews: Brexit Britain Through the Lens of a Russian Master


There’s no denying the political realities when talk turns to the hopes and aspirations of a local Polish cleaner, Krystyna (Edyta Budnik), who is herself brought in to replace one-half of an older British couple whose employment has come with the purchase of the house. Those roles are neatly taken by Christopher Fairbank as the resident gardener and Margot Leicester — seen in London and on Broadway in Mr. Bartlett’s “King Charles III” — as his ailing wife.

The director, Rupert Goold, collaborated with Mr. Bartlett on “King Charles III” and does even more nuanced work this time, with a Chekhovian sense of life caught in the moment compromised only by a first-act conclusion that tilts toward melodramatic excess. (Do we really need accompanying thunder?) The ensemble is easily the equal of Mr. Goold’s current London hit, “Ink,” and it finds an equivalent to that play’s male face-offs in the distaff tensions that build in “Albion” between Audrey and her longtime friend, Katherine (Helen Schlesinger), a novelist whose choice of partner — not to be revealed here — lifts the proceedings toward fever pitch. And defending the satirical thrust of a recent book, Katherine could well be Mr. Bartlett answering those who questioned his treatment of the British royal family in “King Charles III.”


Tony Gardner as Michel, Alexander Hanson as Paul and Samantha Bond as Alice in Florian Zeller’s “The Lie,” translated by Christopher Hampton, at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. Credit Manuel Harlan

While the lineup of women extends from Ms. Hamilton and the ever-trenchant Ms. Schlesinger through to Vinette Robinson as the stricken partner of Audrey’s deceased but much fought-over son, the men impress mightily as well.

Nicholas Rowe is in rare form as a carefree househusband who has little else to do but try out his new home’s various bathrooms, and a young newcomer, Luke Thallon, locates in the sweetly obliging neighbor, Gabriel, both this play’s version of Konstantin, the abject writer in “The Seagull,” and a questing teenager who belongs recognizably to the here and now. In much the same way, Mr. Bartlett responds to Chekhov even as he refashions him, any temporal divide bridged by one’s awareness that humankind viewed in its tragicomic amplitude is as rare and wondrous in today’s theater as it was a century ago.

A notably evasive response by Audrey to a crucial question posed by Zara turns out to be a pivotal plot point in “Albion,” which is to be additionally commended for mining aspects of morality with an empathy missing from “The Lie.” The French writer Florian Zeller’s companion piece to “The Truth,” seen in London early last year, “The Lie” more or less consists of one double-bluff after another, across nearly 90 minutes with no intermission, as is this playwright’s norm. (The play, translated by Christopher Hampton, runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until Nov. 18.)

The characters here have the same names as the quartet in “The Truth,” and the director, Lindsay Posner, and leading man, Alexander Hanson, were part of the creative team for the English-language premiere of the earlier play: This time, Mr. Hanson came in to replace James Dreyfus, who departed the production during rehearsals because of illness.

In every way that matters, though, “The Lie” feels like a programmatic and wearying also-ran that was written perhaps to perpetuate its author’s fondness for neatly paired titles; Mr. Zeller first came to attention in London (and, later, New York) as the author of the darkly themed “The Father,” which itself was followed Off West End by a play called — you guessed it “The Mother.” (That one remains Mr. Zeller’s best to date.)

But whereas “The Truth” began with an adulterous liaison witnessed firsthand, the mounting indiscretions that drive “The Lie” are mostly reported — right up to a coda that generates too little a frisson too late. The opening finds the distracted and prickly Alice (Samantha Bond) eager to cancel the dinner party to which she and her husband, Paul (Mr. Hanson), have invited Paul’s best buddy, Michel (Tony Gardner, uncannily resembling a younger Colin Firth), and his wife, Laurence (Alexandra Gilbreath, effortlessly chic).

Why is Alice so jittery? It seems that she was riding in a Parisian cab when she happened to see Michel kissing an unidentified woman in the street, and so Alice is uneasy about having to face Michel across a dinner table in the company of the cuckolded Laurence.

To say that events are soon upended is to soft-pedal a dramatic strategy that consists of a melee of lies that turn out to be true, alongside the opposite: so much so that the audience is left not so much spinning, as was the case with “The Truth,” but chafing at the puppetry of a playwright busily contorting his characters into one self-contradictory posture after another.

Mr. Hanson and Ms. Bond are married in real life, which surely allows for intriguing pillow talk as they perform material in which adultery is pretty much regarded as a given. But I couldn’t help but feel that both these terrific actors appeared uncomfortable less with the play’s sexually covert landscape and more with its gathering artificiality. Much is made early in “The Lie” about wine needing room to breathe, to which one might add that characters do, too.

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