The second play in Sheffield Theatres’ Michael Frayn season, Benefactors, seems rather different on the surface to Copenhagen (currently playing in the Lyceum).
Set in the late 1960s, this play centres on the lives of two seemingly average suburban couples: architect David (Simon Wilson) and anthropologist Jane (Abigail Cruttenden), and journalist Colin (Andrew Woodall) and former nurse Sheila (Rebecca Lacey).
Yet, as in Copenhagen, Frayn uses his characters and the relationships between them to offer up a reflection on several big themes: architecture, society, politics, housing, friendship, family, marriage, happiness.
The play centres around David’s involvement in a scheme to provide new social housing – pertinent given the impact of 1960s architecture on Sheffield’s social housing, some of which is now demolished, whilst the most famous (or should that be infamous?) construction, Park Hill, is currently undergoing a contemporary makeover.
Seemingly mundane conversations across the dinner table with both couples set in place a whole chain of events which have the power to change the lives of all four dramatically – or do they? - for one of the key themes Frayn plays with here is whether or not we ever really change.
Whilst the play is both very funny and very emotive, on a couple of occasions, Frayn’s dialogue feels too ‘clever’, too eloquent, to be in the mouths of some of these characters – most notably Sheila. The scientists in Copenhagen can get away with being overly verbose, but there are times in this play where the language used momentarily means the characters become somehow less believable.
Despite this, the four leads do very well at depicting complex characters whom we can neither entirely side with, nor despise, each demonstrating the vulnerability the characters feel at different points and the capability to cause devastation within each of them.
Charlotte Gwinner’s direction enables the cast to make the most of the Studio stage – the action never feels static or dull despite there being no significant scene changes. The intimacy of the theatre combined with the 1960s-style kitchen set familiar to most of us helps the audience feel both at home with the characters and as if we are somehow invading their private space - a clever conceit, given that in some scenes, the characters are ‘intruding’ on each other’s lives – and indeed, on the lives of the residents of the housing estate David is contracted to work on.
Like Copenhagen, Benefactors is a skilfully constructed play – but a huge part of the skill lies in how enjoyable it is to watch.
Benefactors is at the Crucible Studio until March 24