BENEFACTORS, Ensemble Theatre, 21 June-22 July 2023. Photography by Prudence Upton: above - Gareth Davies, Matt Minto, Emma Palmer and Megan Drury
Michael Frayn’s wry semi-demi-comedy from 1984 could as well have been titled Basuto Road as the south-east London street – souvenir of the British empire in South Africa – is the central fifth character.
David Kitzinger (Gareth Davies) is an improbably idealistic architect whose latest project is a career-maker – or breaker – as he prepares to replace slummish terraces with a mod utopia. He ponders his sketches on the kitchen counter and can sniff the fresh air he intends gifting to unwitting residents.
David’s wife Jane (Emma Palmer) is an anthropologist and as earthed as he is airy-fairy. Nevertheless, she is a loyal helpmeet and their dual lives run like clockwork. This despite their less successful friends from across the street – Jane found their house for them – Colin and Sheila Molyneux. (Matt Minto and Megan Drury.)
On the face of it Sheila is a timid creature and a bit of a drip. But just as a drip finally wears away the hardest rock and turns it into the Grand Canyon, so Sheila gradually emerges as an unlikely power figure. Colin, on the other hand, while being the one most likely to – head boy, Classics star, influential journalist – actually takes mean-spirited turns and ends up in a misanthropic cul-de-sac.
The first act, which was over-long in 1984 and hasn’t shrunk, sees Sheila, when not weeping, growing ever more limpet-like in her relationship with David and Jane. That she is unknowingly in love with one or the other seems more likely now than it did 40-odd years ago, while in 2023, Colin’s behaviour has an official description: coercive control.
For Frayn and those witnessing the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s brutality – such as David Hare, Howard Brenton, Howard Barker and Caryl Churchill – the treatment of the working class was emblematic of everything wrong with the system. And at the heart of it was housing (sound familiar, Aussies?)
David’s dream is gradually eroded along with relations between the four. Although fairly affectionately entwined, the abrasive effect of their competing interests leads to the fraying of these ties in ways unanticipated by either audience or the four. It makes for an engaging take on the pitfalls of being helped and being helpful – the downsides of benefaction and being a benefactor.
Set in David and Jane’s sleek kitchen-diner, the angular back wall is punctuated by window shapes that suggest modernity or a tower block (design and costumes by Nick Fry). The two women sport not-quite-beehive bouffant do’s and High Street clothes, while David actually still looks like his dad in neat tie and pullover. (The Swinging 60s took a long time to catch on.) And Colin’s denim jacket is a nod to louché journo-wear: he clearly aspires to The Guardian.
In confiding in the audience, Emma Palmer is particularly effective and we share her human side, which is otherwise tightly suppressed while dealing with the others. Gareth Davies’ dreamer David is a more pastel figure whose gradual slide from decent family dwellings to 50-storey tower blocks is maddeningly sad.
As the mouse-that-roared Sheila, Megan Drury walks a fine line between character and caricature and stays the right side of it to the point where the urge to slap her becomes extreme. At the same time, Matt Minto’s Colin is a smug bastard who generates a different urge – to punch him on the nose. Initiating such a lot of violent feeling in a member of the audience suggests they’re doing quite a lot right and between them all they make for a strong quartet, directed by Mark Kilmurry.
Special mention to dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley. She’s done an amazing job in fixing four rock-solid middle class English accents. These, together with tiny mentions of various nasty -isms that land like grenades from time to time, add to the depth of an absorbing and entertaining evening. Recommended.