It is April 1967 and Greece is in political turmoil. A young playwright Theo and his teacher wife Charlotte meet an enigmatic American couple – Harvey, charismatic and persuasive and his wife June, boozy and brittle – while holidaymaking in Skiathos and invite them back to their small island retreat. But it doesn't take long before Harvey has convinced them to buy their peasant cottage for a handful of drachmas as the owners are desperate t bag as much money as they can before emigrating to Australia. The choices that are made, though, have devastating consequences.
The play, which spans a decade, revolves around the ideas of manipulation – in politics, finance, relationships and language, with the Greek holidaying home becoming a symbol of a diplomatic powerplay. Yet it feels lightweight – a domestic drama occasionally straining to make profound points, while trying to integrate the personal and the political into a satisfying whole. It works best in the often funny interactions between the two couples where things get tense very quickly, while everyone is putting on sunscreen, making dinner or pouring drinks.
Hildegarde Bechtler's evocative sun-washed set is practically an advert for the Greek tourist board.
But it is the strong performances that really bring the play so convincingly to life. Ben Miles (of Wolf Hall, in particular, is on fine form as the startlingly obnoxious Harvey, a CIA operative who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. He invests the character with a degree of complexity driven by an unshakeable self-belief but far from blind to the cost of his actions. Elizabeth McGovern (of Downton Abbey fame) here in a platinum blonde wig, is amusing as his rum-soaked wife, June. Pippa Nixon brings nuance to her role as the idealist Charlotte, the play's conscience, while Sam Crane convinces as the diffident, well-meaning Theo, a refugee from Camberwell.
An interesting play then, but I just wish it had dug a little deeper.
Sunset at the Villa Thalia
Runs at the Dorfman Theatre at the National until Thursday 4 August 2016
Box office: 020 7452 3000
Photography: © Manuel Harlan
Last modified: June 16, 2016