Sunset at the Villa Thalia

Alexi Kaye Campbell
Dorfman Theatre (National)

Sam Crane, Pippa Nixon, Ben Miles and Elizabeth McGovern Credit: Manuel Harlan
Elizabeth McGovern and Ben Miles Credit: Manuel Harlan
The Cast of Sunset at the Villa Thalia Credit: Manuel Harlan

Alexi Kaye Campbell might have set his new comedy of manners on a Greek Island but the subject matter and tone are both a long way from Mamma Mia and Shirley Valentine.

The play significantly opens in 1967 on an idyll being enjoyed by a young couple from Camberwell.

Sam Crane's Theo is an aspiring playwright, ironically with a role that is somewhat underwritten, while Pippa Nixon is Charlotte, an actress with liberal tendencies. They have escaped the rat race to help fire up his creative juices and the change of location seems to be working.

Their perfect peasants' cottage and sun-kissed environs are made real by designer Hildegard Bechtler and become the space for heated debate when guests arrive from America via Athens.

To describe Ben Miles's odious Harvey as overbearing does not convey the half of it. Supporting the actor who has just enjoyed small screen success as wicked Somerset in The Hollow Crown, Elizabeth McGovern, who has done well for herself in Downton Abbey, plays June who has a tendency to shelter behind alcohol and apologies.

It quickly becomes apparent that Harvey's government job is with the CIA or an equivalent and his intrusive nature makes one wonder what could conceivably have attracted the two couples to each other.

The contrasts become more pointed as the two hours develop. However, Harvey's aggression does help the younger couple when their landlords offer them the house for a song, suggesting that it becomes Theo's muse.

He helps them overcome potential left-wing guilt with the justification that the pittance that they are asked to pay will help Maria and her father to settle more successfully in Sydney.

In buying it, their die is cast as certainly as that of their host nation when the Colonels launch a right wing coup, which might have more be more closely connected to Harvey's day job than he cares to admit.

The interval advances events by nine years. By now, Theo is a success, two sweet kids have arrived and the Americans are at each other's throats, Chilean politics having bred paranoia in Harvey.

A play that seemed peripherally about American imperialism as seen through Harvey's archetypically right wing activities on behalf of his country goes further, becoming an allegory about the ways in which the relatively rich are able to subjugate and take advantage of those who are almost completely dispossessed.

Eventually, the more passive possessiveness of the Brits is called into question, as guilt becomes a driving force for all concerned in what is a relatively slight but gently thought-provoking piece.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher