Albery Theatre, London WC2
Opened 26 June, 2002

*** Well staged, but it's a play out of several times at once

Michael Frayn's play is a strange throwback to an era when personal relationships could blend with comment on social policy but which era?

Frayn's play was premiered in 1984. But it's set in 1978, but with the characters looking back ten years or so from there. Robert Jones' design gives perfunctory nods to all three of those periods, and to 2002, so that we've no idea which world the characters are actually moving in.

This might not matter with many plays, but Benefactors is strongly tied to its period... well, to two of its periods. It concerns high-rise public housing, as architect David plans two 50-storey towers for a south London estate; this would put it firmly in the 1960s, even without a thinly veiled reference to the Ronan Point disaster of 1968. Secondly, it's the kind of play that emerged in a particular mid-'80s moment when the personal and the civic could dynamically comment on each other. But without strong foundations (sorry) in any one era, this production totters and crumbles.

Emma Chambers is excellent as the timid Sheila, growing in confidence as David and his wife "adopt" her; Neil Pearson shows signs of being on automatic as Sheila's bitter journalist husband Colin. Jeremy Sams' direction is disquietingly devoid of any of his usual playfulness.

Written for

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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