Armed with the infallibility of a flawless script, little can go wrong with a Michael Frayn play. Add to the mix impeccable performances from Rebecca Lacey and Andrew Woodall, and the silky-smooth direction of Charlotte Gwinner, and the result is a near-flawless production.
Benefactors follows a domestic foursome in the 1960s, their careers and their marriages smattered onto the simplistic set of an antiquated middle-class kitchen.
David and Jane are the successful, glossy duo who begrudgingly allow neighbours Colin and Sheila to increasingly inhabit their lives.
David’s career as an idealistic architect intent on redeveloping a run-down estate into tower block “tomb stones” on the London landscape becomes the backdrop for the strain and uncertainty of the quartet’s relationship – although the description is much to David’s consternation.
David’s ‘friend’ Colin is an typical Angry Young Man of the era, complete with Philip Larkin-esque googly glasses and a rapidly receding hairline. The sardonic journalist initially seems jealous of his stylish neighbours, as wife Sheila flits manically through the set like an over-medicated bunny who is desperate to be anyone other than herself.
The one-set scene absorbs the intensity and tension of David’s disastrous never-seen, only-heard housing project, becoming the microcosm of the frayed internal relationships. The prickly development of the script allows the audience to see things that never enter the play’s aesthetic.
The consistent description of Colin and Sheila’s house as “foul and brown” and their children’s perpetual illness become metaphors for the stinking moral blindness beneath their marriage. The children, just like David’s architectural vision, are an unseen undercurrent of the script – a decaying presence in the shadows.
Tiny additions to the direction and scenery of the production enhance its subtle power, such as Colin’s broken chair. Sheila’s character barely deserves a chair; she is lowered to the second-rate seat on the floor of their house as her husband aggressively towers over her with a cold menace akin to David’s skyscraper tomb stones.
For a Frayn novice, Benefactors is a deceptively simple, wonderfully rewarding snippet of his career.