November 01, 1986

Urbane Renewal

By Michael Frayn
State Theatre Company, Playhouse.

Michael Frayns play, Benefactors appeared on the State Theatre Company performance list after Nick Enright and Alan John’s show Strange Harvest fell to the scythe of economics a few months back. The new Australian content in State’s programme dropped somewhat when John Romeril’s Jonah Jones went overboard and then Strange Harvest got the rotary heave ho as well, but indications are that State will redress the balance in 1987.

Benefactors, then, is a to-and-from play glittering with prizes for being best in the West End last year. It’s reasonable to ask: “best of what?” sometimes but because it is thoughtful, amusing and slightly out of phase with the sum of its parts, Benefactors is an interesting theatre piece.

Ostensibly it is about events in London in the late 1960s narrated fifteen years on by the couples involved: David and Jane are models of middle-class professional decorum – good-hearted, fairminded, well organised, humane, beneficent. Colin and Sheila, on the other hand, are mismatched with each other and the world and are variously impulsive; chaotic, satiric and ingenuous. DaVid is anarchitect commissioned to build residential highrises on the site of Basuto Road and environs, an area of deteriorated Edwardian housing crying out for gentrification. Guilelessly purein-heart, he plans tower blocks for the multitudes while Colin, peevish, donnish and aloof, campaigns against the project. Then Jane and Sheila cross relationship boundaries as their alliances, perspectives and views of the world begin to change.

It all sounds a bit like “Who’s Afraid of the Urban Plan?” but in fact the events in the play are not its central interest. It is irrelevant also to suggest that the play is dated, that all that highrise versus community reconstruction stuff was hashed over years ago, because Frayn specifically avoids any temptation to make Benefactors a period piece; there are no nostalgic details or reminiscences about the good old barricades. His focus instead is on the possibilities and motivations for change and the forces within ourselves and our society which work against it. Frayn is no Marxist but he is no reactionary. either and while the play is implanted with references which remind us of the struggle between benefaction and malefaction, the contrary states of the human soul, Benefactors doesn’t opt out by disappearing up its own psychic metaphor.

John Wood’s direction reveals the substance of the play without denying its ready humour. It could have been paced more briskly but the result would have been glib and falsely reassuring. Benefactors is genuinely funny but it’s not meant just a barrel of laughs. Wood commented that he wanted to expose the characters more than in some other productions of the play and he has done so almost relentlessly.

The effect is achieved, paradoxically, by the tensions created with Eamon D’Arcy’s dinky· little set. Politely furnished, it has three entrances for the series of overlapping monologues from the characters which virtually comprise the play, while the backdrop of highrise buildings looks as though it was drawn with coloured pencils. John Comeadow’s lighting design is one of unrelieved blandness, set at a genteel wattage also in ironic contrast to the action.

The performances are evenly very good. Geoffrey Rush (cult hero of Theatresports ), is subtle and convincingly unworldly as David the human engineer while Jane Menelaus, as Jane, provides a fluent foil both to him and to Liddy Clark’s proletarian Sheila; a shrewd performance on the verge of caricature which accumulates considerable force in the moments of real crisis in the play. William Zappa, as Colin; makes the character accessible, though detestable, and maintains a fine balance of the mordant and the malign – it is a difficult part intelligently played. Overall, one of the pleasures of the production is the ensemble interaction of the players.

John Wood has done well with Benefactors but there are things we could do without: the sixties music misleads us before we’ve even sat· down, it’s not a Woodstock reunion and we don’t need the loudspeaker countdown or to see the actors prepare for their performances. The revolve is used interestingly to reveal facades for what they are, but since the production used such a constrained acting space, it would have been better not to have shown us, before the play began, that the mainstage of the Playhouse is big enough to herd bison across.

Benefactors is a detailed literary piece, in many respects theatrically unremarkable; but it is accessible and disturbing and it shows that the processes of change are often spirals and circles, even treadmills but it is neither cynical or facile about them. When the Basuto wars are over and the characters are rehabilitated and redeployed and, notably, the women are significantly empowered, we are left to reflect usefully on the merits of going high, or remaining semi-detached.

“Urbane Renewal”, The Adelaide Review, November, 1986. np.

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