SUNSET AT THE VILLA THALIA NT Dorfman, SE1

 VACATION,  EXPLOITATION,  ACCUSATION…

 

I caught up a few days late with this (cheap seats aloft, excitingly closer to the rock-face in Hildegard Bechtler’s Mediterranean-terrace set than the stalls people below, representing the waves). I was drawn to bag a late ticket by huge respect for Alexi Kaye Campbell’s last London play – PRIDE – with its skilful interweaving of past and present in the treatment of Britain’s gay men. And given his Greek family ancestry, there was intrigue in the idea of a play set in 1967 – when the junta of Colonels took power – and nine years later with democracy restored . What could go wrong?

 

 

 
Early reviews of Simon Godwin’s production were lukewarm, tending to find it a bit wordy, politically declamatory and slow: indeed the first half tends a bit that way. And given the present Greek crisis some wished that it had stretched closer to the present. But now (well bedded in) the play grew on me, offering multiple layers of thought and pinpricks of proper indignation, right through to a sharp final twist of the political knife.

 

 

 
It opens in 1967 in Ayckbournian style with a British middle-class playwright Theo (Sam Crane) and his actress wife Charlotte (Pippa Nixon) laughingly dreading the arrival of holiday acquaintances: a brash US State Department “floater” Harvey – a senatorial Ben Miles – and his Barbie wife June, Elizabeth McGovern in a period-perfect flickup blonde hairdo. They are lodging in a lovely old villa whose owner Maria and her Dad are emigrating to Sydney, away from political upheavals. Harvey, with American gusto and flattery for Theo’s writing, talks the English couple into buying it for a song from the fairly desperate Greeks. He is full of large statements about how “democracy and theatre are twins, born here at the same moment”. Running through the play, an understated but useful theme, is the curiously strong magnetic effect which – even as we mock – American optimism and overstatement often have on weedier, more doubtful liberal Brits.

 

 
Nine years later, after the interval, Theo and Charlotte have two small children scattering crayons and bounding around with “uncle” Harvey; inter- and intra-couple relationships are thinning perilously, not least since Barbie June finds Harvey hasn’t been the same “since Chile”, or slept with her, after an innocent, musical young Chilean neighbour was rounded up and “disappeared” in the American-backed anti-Communist coup against Allende. She is drinking heavily (McGovern catches beautifully her borderlne loss of control) and gives away the fact that her husband paranoiacally carries a gun everywhere. So Charlotte goes nuts in a predictably anti-gun rant. And Harvey, full of bravura, attempts a Greek dance with the children she Charlotte shrilly gives him the full Guardianista rant about wicked “cultural appropriation” of a music born out of exile and poverty. So he rounds on her with a story devastatingly underlining the fact that their whole takeover of Maria’s house and very dinnerplates is rather beyond a mere dance.

 

 

 
Nixon and Miles are superb in confrontation: Sam Crane’s weedy uncertain politically-correct playwright pales in comparison with the American’s honest acknowledgement that he, and all of us, carry a first-world guilt and should be wary of throwing the first stone. Pippa’s excoriation of American world managment – “Your definition of democracy is a selective one” is twisted back on her. And a lovely grace-note, prefiguring today’s mess, is that Theo and Charlotte are selling the house on to a German. And buying a Cornish holiday cottage: whose price has, of course, itself dispossessed locals. And they can’t see that either.
It’s a finer play than its slow first half promised. Glad I didn’t miss it.
box office 0207 452 3000 to 4 August
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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