Jeremy Sams’ revival of Michael Frayn’s comedy “Noises Off” is enjoying a successful run in both the West End and Broadway. However, his revival of Frayn’s 1984 Oliver Award-winning play “Benefactors” is a miscast, ill-conceived disaster. I predict a short run for this banal production.
The story concerns David and Jane, a couple with high ideals and an overbearing benevolent concern for their neighbours, the unhappy Colin and Sheila. The unfortunate outcome of David and Jane’s charity causes the fractures in their neighbour’s marriage to finally shatter leading to misery for all concerned.
David is an architecture who has been asked by the council to design a new housing estate to replace derelict Victorian houses. As the obstacles grow against David’s original plans, he has to draw designs for higher and higher tower blocks until eventually he designs a 50-storey skyscraper. The ever-growing tower block becomes a fitting analogy for the increasing difficulties in the relationship between Colin and Sheila and resultantly between David and Jane. Eventually the domestic and business turmoil collide when Colin and Sheila’s marriage finally disintegrates and Sheila and the kids move in with David and Jane whilst Colin moves into an abandoned house on the estate threatened with demolition from where he starts a campaign against David’s scheme.
This turn of events clearly defines the battle lines for the war that is meant to ensure between the two couples. Sheila, who is a package of inferiority, subservience and incompetence bound together by the occasional melodramatic act, has fallen in love with David, who is grateful for her support. Meanwhile, Jane is finding herself being allied with Colin in opposing the skyscraper, which she refers to as a ‘Giant Tombstone’. What follows should be a bitter clash of conflicts between the characters. Sheila supporting David yet not allowing her need to be loved destroy his marriage; Jane fighting to save her marriage and yet oppose the skyscraper; David seeking to remain a supportive friend to Sheila and yet being the mediator of peace. Instead, one has the impression that the actors believe they are merely having a genteel disagreement. The blistering lines are delivered with far too much restraint to leave any disturbing affect. Like vexed children in a playground, the actors stand off against each other too afraid to deliver any actual blows.
Emma Chambers, who plays Sheila, gives the best performance. Her meek mannered portrayal increasingly creates tension between the other characters. However, only Sylvestra Le Touzel who plays Jane adequately responds to this irritant in their mist. Aden Gillett who plays David comes across merely placed rather than lovingly concerned for his wife and friends. And Neil Pearson is totally miscast has Colin, his character is not malevolence or vehemence, merely churlish.
What other critics had to say.....
DARREN DALGLISH says, "A pretty dull and uneventful affair". MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, " Jeremy Sams's production is fast, fluid and cuts effortlessly between past and present.......this is exactly the kind of mind-expanding comedy the West End urgently needs." LYNNE TRUSS for THE DAILY MAIL says, "Absorbing and witty fourhander." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "It is an absorbing, if somewhat schematic, plot." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Subtle and gripping a play as Frayn has written." NICHIOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Benefactors is a serious comedy and neither its serious nor comic aspects are brought to any real fruition. He goes on to say, "Neat, underpowered comedy."
External links to full reviews from newspapers
Next review by Jonathan Richards
Michael Frayn’s award festooned serious comedy has returned to the West End, now under the direction of Jeremy Sams. There is no doubt Frayn is an intelligent writer, but despite fairly competent performances, the play had little effect other than to mildly interest me. The topic is an potentially stimulating one, but largely due to the didactic way Frayn spells out his arguments, the emotional heart of the evening is surprisingly lacking, and therefore uninvolving. Instead it is a cold but well structured piece of intelligent writing. The characters’ dialogue is never particularly believable, nor are their relationships, history or actions because of the rather naff way Frayn creates them: all his characters are far too clever, far too analytical, so the resulting package is more like having four Michael Frayns all on stage together. By the end of the evening, I felt it was the script that was holding the actors back from delivering a more satisfying piece.
Robert Jones’ set is excellent: a bare stage symbolically dominated by large concrete high-rise flat-like slabs which David, an architect, intends to build, and which dominates the four characters’ lives. On it are the vague traces of middle class living; an elegant fireplace, nicely moulded cornices, elegant windows representing the effect the middle class couple Jane and David try and have on lower income housing tenants. These are our Benefactors, not only towards the inhabitants of Basuto Road, but also to Colin and Sheila, their reliant neighbours. Tim Mitchell’s wonderful lighting contrasts the warmth of David and Jane’s home with the otherwise cold, less inviting locations in the rest of the play.
The cast of four cope well with the fluid, quick pace of Sams’ production, but things never really hot up. When Colin (Neil Pearson) tells his mousey hapless wife Sheila (an impressive Emma Chambers) “You disgust me,” he comes across as a boo-hiss bad husband nothing believably real. Once again this is partly due to Frayn’s emotionally shallow writing, but the potential heat of the conflicts between couples and individuals is always mildly understated and bland. This is not to say that the cast turn in bad performances. Aden Gillett and Sylvestra Le Touzel’s well meaning but socially blind couple are impressively played against the recipients of their hospitality and Neil Pearson in a small but important role turns Colin into more of a caricature than a genuinely spiteful, unlikeable figure.
This is by no means a bad evening of theatre; the performances are consistent and credible, and there is certainly food for thought in the writing. But I left unmoved by what was a potentially thrilling comedy though neither thrills nor comedy are fully exploited here. I do not think we will be seeing another revival of this in 18 years…
My previous experiences of Michael Frayn’s work has been as diverse as one could imagine. Productions of his Noises Off and Copenhagen have both appeared in the West End in recent years, and I was not at all sure where Benefactors would appear on this “Frayn Scale”. As it turned out, and I suppose this would have been a logical guess, Jeremy Sams production at the Albery Theatre was somewhere in the middle; humorous at times, yet addressing some serious issues, woven together by interpersonal relationship complications.
David and Jane live a very normal family life – he is an architect, always dreaming, and charged with the regeneration of a patch of South West London, sweeping away streets with colonial names from a bygone era, and replacing low rise simplicity with high rise, modern splendour. Across the road, although more often to be found in David and Jane’s kitchen, live Colin and Sheila, a hopelessly mismatched couple, brought together by pregnancy rather than love. He is a journalist of high ideals, she is apparently spineless, pathetic and pitiful, to whom Jane and David offer succour (whether they mean to or not), providing endless hospitality and ultimately, employment, as her marriage disintegrates. And so, inevitably, the dreams of David and the ideals of Colin collide, complicated by Sheila’s infatuation for David, and Jane’s work for a housing trust that is charged with rehousing the inhabitants of David’s dream project. Colin takes up the cause of the soon-to-be disposed, leading demonstrating, encouraging squatting and ultimately running for Parliament on the back of his popularity. Meanwhile David’s plans for his architectural monument become ever more frustrated by committees, councils, the electricity board, and of course, Colin.
Set against the background of the house building boom of the late-60s, when town planners dreamed of castles in the sky for all, setting in motion the development of what we now know to have been a hideous aesthetic and sociological mistake, Benefactors is a powerful piece of theatre, with strong performances from all the cast. Neil Pearson is particularly effective as the contrarian, opposing David’s scheme simply for sake of opposition and the personal liberation it brings him. Emma Chambers is also convincing as his neurotic and hopelessly insecure wife.
Not for all-comers by any means, Benefactors is nonetheless a thought provoking and well directed piece, that deserves the plaudits it has received.