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Mike Bartlett’s fun but slightly shallow Brexit allegory returns post EU withdrawal
Victoria Hamilton is on fantastic form as seasoned hostess Audrey, a homewares-entrepreneur-turned-English-
She’s all about the values of hard work and getting the job done, never mind about the cleaner Cheryl (Margot Leicester) whose services she disposes of like a used wet wipe when efficient Pole Krystyna (Edyta Budnik) turns up. Her partner Paul (Nicholas Rowe) cedes power to her like an old dog showing its belly, but her 24-year-old daughter Zara (Daisy Edgar-Jones) resists falling in line. Thrown into friendship with working-class aspiring writer Gabriel (Dónal Finn), she keeps catching odd glimpses of her own entitlement, like unflattering reflections in shop windows.
You can definitely draw political parallels here, especially in the clash between Audrey and her old friend Katherine (Helen Schlesinger), an author whose Europhile tendencies show themselves in a snobbish disdain for the British voters who she feels have let her down. But this isn’t really the starchy ‘Why Brexit?’ drama it initially promises to be; Bartlett shys away from real social critique, and instead chucks in loads of hugely fun but slightly soapy drama.
Audrey’s ambition is punished pretty conclusively, each life around her trampled underfoot – but in a way that feels a bit overegged, a bit morality fable. Her dead son’s girlfriend Anna (Angel Coulby) floats around mournfully, before humping the lawn where his ashes are scattered like a kind of Homes and Gardens-era Ophelia. And her daughter Zara embarks on a focus-pulling May-to-December romance with Katherine that feels overblown and male-gazey – all forbidden lust and desperate glances across the shrubbery.
Instead of politics, what feels central here is romance, and the way that love can be irrational and destructive: Audrey is deep in exclusive lust with her garden, Anna’s transfixed by the lost boyfriend she only dated for three months, and Zara’s willing to lose everything for a fleeting crush.
Maybe there’s something here about how Brexit voters are willing to risk everything for a romantic obsession with a Britain we’re losing. There’s a heightened atmosphere, brought out in the clumsy hints of magic in Rupert Goold’s heavily stylised production, that makes it all feel like a fable for the heady days after the Brexit vote, rather than for the years of disillusionment and deepening social divides that have followed. In true English country house drama style, the upper-middle-class protagonists live out their romantic fantasies while the working-class characters are stuck carrying trays of teacups.