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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Sunset At The Villa Thalia
Dorfman Theatre  Summer 2016

Alexi Kaye Campbell's new play has a dubious and distasteful moral message, awkward dramaturgy and characters who are all unsympathetic to varying degrees. Other than that, it's just fine.

In Greece in 1967 a young British couple he an aspiring playwright and she an actress are adopted and somewhat taken over by an American couple he a CIA agent in charge of destabilizing governments in the name of anticommunism (and in Greece for the military coup), she an alcoholic airhead. 

Through sheer force of never shutting up, the American talks the Brits into buying the house they're renting, even though it involves cheating the sellers. 

Nine years later, having just engineered the overthrow of the Chilean government, the Americans return for a visit. And when their hosts finally have enough and throw them out, the man makes a sadistic point of telling them things designed to hurt them as much as possible. 

While the play does ultimately reject the American's (and America's) anticommunism-justifies-anything position, it does allow him to defend it at length. 

More disturbingly, it allows him to argue unopposed that removing democratic governments and supporting torture and murder is the moral equivalent of the British couple's getting a bargain on their house. And that simply ain't true. 

Putting the play's morality and politics aside, its dramatic structure is clumsy. 

The alcoholic wife serves no real function except as a dubiously comic stereotype. One character's back story and psychology is given through a long expository speech by another, told to us rather than being shown. 

Chekhov's Law (If you introduce a gun early in the play, it had better be fired by the end) is openly flouted. And the basic dramatic question of any play why are these people standing in this space talking to each other? - isn't answered until the very final moments, and unconvincingly. 

Meanwhile, there is nobody in the play to identify or sympathise with. 

The CIA man is created and brilliantly played by Ben Miles to be one of the most irredeemably despicable characters since Uriah Heep. 

A bull artist and a bully, he rides roughshod over everyone by the sheer volume (in the sense both of quantity and loudness) of his verbiage, and you quickly catch on that absolutely everything he says has some ulterior purpose, if only the pleasure of domination. 

But the other three main characters don't thereby become sympathetic, even by default. The baddy is so obviously a baddy that the others come across as either too dense to care about or too weak-willed and cowardly to feel for. 

Ben Miles earns some respect, not least for his courage, for playing the bully with full conviction and no attempt to soften him. But Sam Crane, Pippa Nixon and Elizabeth McGovern are given so little in the way of characterisation to work with that they barely register.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Sunset At The Villa Thalia  - National Theatre 2016  
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