Sunset at the Villa Thalia at the National Theatre.

The National Theatre were kind enough offer a ticket for the press night of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s new play, Sunset at the Villa Thalia (illustrative image © Manuel Harlan). Geographically challenged and unable to attend, friend of the blog James Cooray Smith went instead and offers this review:

Theatre  I’m a sucker for a production that takes place on a single set. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s strong new play Sunset at the Villa Thalia not only does that, and very effectively, but also obeys classical ideas of unity of action, time and place for much of its running time. (There is one, very effective, moment where it goes all Time And The Conways on us). This is clearly deliberate.  The setting, a Greek island on a single evening in 1967 (Act One) and then another in 1976 (Act Two) is an appropriate one for a play that works in such a manner.  At one point the play’s anti-hero Harvey (Ben Miles) points out to his friends, and thus the audience, that they are very close to place where classical theatre was born.

Harvey is an American, a CIA spook, in Greece ahead of, and anticipating, the Colonels’ coup of 1967 which, it seems he has done something to help bring about. He’s having a drink with his wife June, (a nuanced, hilarious, sad Elizabeth McGovern) and two new friends Charlotte (Pippa Nixon, strident and sympathetic) and Theo (Sam Crane, bookish and relatable), a younger English couple, an actress and a writer respectively, who are renting a house on a small Greek Island for the summer.

Before long, Harvey has gamed Charlotte and Theo into buying the house they rent from the owners, who are intending to emigrate to Australia within days. With his easy, coercive manner, surface reasonableness and kiss curl, Harvey initially seems - in a superb piece of symbolism - like a malignant Clark Kent. But Harvey is not malignant, nor is he a hypocrite; he’s merely delusional about America’s role in the world and his role within it. Yet he also has powers of insight, as well as persuasion, asking the other characters and the audience pertinent questions It’s a towering, persuasive, detailed performance that’s the best thing in Miles’ career. (He also convincingly ages a decade between acts with changed posture and a pair of Nixon sideburns.)

The first half, then, is essentially perfectly shaped and perfectly delivered by the cast. The second half, in which Harvey and June visit Charlotte and Theo again nine years later, as they prepare to sell the house, could do with some very small cuts. A brief discussion of ‘cultural appropriation’ feels more of 2016 than plausibly of 1976, and the point has already been made through action. A final argument between Charlotte and Theo is again mere repetition, spelling out explicitly things the plays has already told us, sometimes more than once, and drawing too much attention to how the house and its history and the black ops in which Harvey has been involved mirror each other. By this point every member of the audience either understands the metaphor or never will. It doesn’t need spelling out quite so prosaically. The actors and the play have, as Harvey argues he has done in many of the world’s ‘trouble spots’, already done the dirty work so the rest of us don’t have to.

Sunset at the Villa Thalia runs until 4th August 2016.  Click here for details.

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