Michael Frayn is currently enjoying great success. His farce, Noises Off, has been revived to great acclaim in London and on Broadway and his scientific drama, Copenhagen, has also been a recent hit. The producers of Benefactors, not seen on a West End stage since its initial run in 1984, obviously see the chance of cashing in.
This is a four-hander which takes a wry, if sometimes depressed, look at a country that was five years into life under the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher. While Frayn is not known as a political playwright of the ilk of David Hare or Howard Brenton, this comedy has some very unkind observations to make about the "Utopia" that was achieved by Mrs Thatcher's administration.
David and Jane Kitzinger are a very happy and prosperous couple. He is an idealistic architect (played by Aden Gillett) while she is an anthropologist who supports him and acts as his sounding board. By contrast, Colin and Sheila Molyneux are struggling. Neil Pearson, famous for his television appearances in particular in Drop the Dead Donkey, plays Colin, who was the head boy of the school and classical genius. Now he is a bitter journalist whose misanthropy and schadenfreude have taken over their lives. Sheila is scarily subservient, mouse-like and silent.
David's current project is the redevelopment of an inner city slum. It is no coincidence that this is called Basutho Road. He is shown as the successor to a long line of cultural imperialists who turned the map of Africa red in the 19th and 20th centuries. The most serious debate that takes place in the play is with regard to whether the masses are worthy to decide their own fate or whether a paternalistic 'demi-god' must do so for them. This microcosmic argument has obvious political parallels.
Eventually, David's solution is to build two 50 storey high towers. It does not take a genius to associate this with a tragedy in United States last year. In fact, as Colin loses his wife and goes off at the rails, amazingly becoming an anarchistic hero of the people, he actually describes the potential effect of the destruction of these towers with chilling contemporary resonance.
While David becomes closer to the devoted Sheila, whom he and Jane have almost adopted, Jane moves in the other direction. She tires of the constant good cheer and ignorant bliss of her husband preferring the bitter, almost demonic qualities of the rather one-dimensional, Colin. While this could become clichéd, Frayn ensures that great restraint is shown much to the benefit of the plot.
The strength of his characterisation is demonstrated by the attempts of the individuals to overcome their weaknesses and act differently. Despite their finest efforts, they will always, ultimately, revert to their true natures. His language is also often a pleasure. As one might expect from a Booker Prize nominated novelist, his visually powerful imagery combines well with sharp dialogue.
Under the direction of the Jeremy Sams (who is also responsible for the revival of Noises Off), the cast all give good performances. In particular, Emma Chambers as Sheila and Sylvestra Le Touzel as Jane fully explore the depths of their characters. Sheila's apparent injection of mental strength and life is carried off perfectly by Miss Chambers until the moment when, despairing head in hands, she witnesses an argument between her hero, David, and his wife. In an instant the edifice that has been so hard to construct crumbles forever.
Sams also ensures that the pace is constantly maintained. He achieves this with the assistance of overlapping scenes and also very effective narration, in asides delivered by the actors directly to the audience.
Benefactors is a combination of trendy comedy of manners, thrusting political drama and, on a deeper level, analysis of the impact that an imperialistic British society had on its colonial satellites. Whether the play really manages to escape the bounds of its original time is open to question but that is probably a minor quibble. With its hidden allegorical depths, it falls somewhere in the middle ground between the playwright's comedies and heavyweight dramas and also has the depth and humour that is so apparent in his novels. Therefore it should prove popular with his many fans and a good introduction to his work for anyone else.
Benefactors is booking until 28th September.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher