WORLD WAR II ended some 20 years before, but London’s local authorities are still struggling about how to deal with clearing slum areas and reduce a backlog in housing for (approximately) 14 000 people. There’s also a major problem about where to house families when reconstruction commences.
Architect David Kitzinger (Brian Notcutt) has been tasked with designing suitable dwellings and buildings around the area of Basuto Road...an area comprising about 200 acres.
Notcutt out did himself as the idealist dreaming of designing for every family, a small semi-detached cottage, with a small garden squared off by a small fence. Vocally he gives value to every word. Every gesture has appropriate meaning. He leaves no doubt he cares about his commission and the people who will be living there. As well as caring for his wife Jane (Debi Hawkins) and friends Sheila (Melanie O’Conner) and Colin (Norman McFarlane).
A commanding figure, Hawkins has a well modulated voice and strong stage presence. As David’s wife she loyally backs his schemes, but is more realistic...and better at maths... quickly calculating there is insufficient ground on which to build David’s dream homes.
As David slowly realises the enormity of building restrictions, problems with site lines, railway lines, roads, underground gas, electricity and sewerage pipes, so his aspirations of pretty little cottages metamorphoses into two giant 50 storey skyscrapers.
Its around David’s dilemma (as relevant today as back then) that English award winning playwright and novelist Michael Frayn places The Benefactors. The play begins with Jane (an anthropologist) listening patiently to David as he enthuses over his proposed designs. When he dashes out Jane addresses the audience about their present domestic situation which involves their next-door neighbours Sheila and Colin Molyneux.
Sheila - an ex-nurse playing the helpless victim of her husband’s abuse and her own inadequacies - is a manipulator par excellence. She knows exactly what “buttons to press” to get Jane to fetch-and-carry her children, feed them and her husband Colin on a daily basis while manoeuvring her way into a job with David. Petit O’Conner - in her drab dress,
cardigan, dowdy shoes and meek voice - gave Sheila all the woebegone qualities expected from such a duplicitous personality.
For Colin, a classics scholar turned journalist, McFarlane’s short-cropped grey hair, lean, cadaverous face and smirking hewed Colin into the nasty character he is. He’s a man who calls his wife pet names while simultaneously verbally and emotionally abusing her. And pretends friendship towards David and Jane yet isn’t beyond planning to destroy David’s architectural ambitions.
Developing Frayn’s understanding of the human psyche and how people can play off each other requires an experienced and sensitive director. Coleen van Staden fits that role. With admirable perception and without being too “busy” she keeps her team’s action and the dialogue’s impetus moving along at cracking pace by putting Barrie Howard’s “colourless”
minimalistic sets to maximise effect. Although this unusual thought provoking play could have benefited by trimming the first half, never-the-less, The Benefactors is a worthwhile show.