London Theater Review: Alexi Kaye Campbell’s ‘Sunset at the Villa Thalia’

Sunset at the Villa Thalia
Manuel Harlan

A Greek holiday home becomes a symbol of a diplomatic powerplay in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s two-act time-hop, “Sunset at the Villa Thalia,” at the National Theater. The playwright of transatlantic success “The Pride” puts two couples — one British, one American — on the island of Skiathos as Greece trips into a military coup, and lets them exploit local uncertainty for personal gain. Despite a magnetic performance from Ben Miles of “Wolf Hall” (co-starring here with Elizabeth McGovern of “Downton Abbey”), it’s too transparent an allegory, and the political insights — meddling Americans, lapdog Brits — are as slimline as they are standard-issue.

Kaye Campbell was one year old when the tanks rolled into Athens, and his family had a house on Skiathos. It’s there that, in April 1967, Brits Theo (Sam Crane) and Charlotte (Pippa Nixon), playwright and actress, are lolling about at their lowly holiday rental when in storm the Americans — “diplomat” Harvey (Miles), a string-pulling CIA man, and his Barbie blonde partner June (McGovern) — on a full-beam charm offensive.

America personified, Harvey’s a whirlwind with whitened-teeth, perma-tanned, super-smooth and superficially charismatic. A natural born salesman who spouts synonyms to see what sticks, he convinces the Brits to buy the place on the cheap from its Greek owners. Desperate people sell easy and, despite Charlotte’s pangs of conscience, he wows both Greek owners and British buyers with promises of easy money and future happiness. Miles moves his hands like a stage hypnotist, then smacks a name on the clay shack — Villa Thalia — like a flag in the moon.

Nine years later, after the junta’s collapse, the four reunite on a fractious family holiday. Harvey and June, their childlessness a mark of a damn-tomorrow approach, have lost their sheen. June attacks the punch, and Harvey is breathless and disheveled, haunted by his hand in the botched Chilean coup. By the time they’re all dancing to rebetiko music, goofing around to traditional folk songs, Kaye Campbell’s metaphor has gone into overdrive and the ominous orange glow of Natasha Chivers’ Aegean sunset rather forces the mood.

All the way through, symbolism leads and characters follow. Kaye Campbell’s found a good vehicle for his politics, and he writes with a strong sense of friendship and family dynamics, but there’s very little drama on a personal level. A flicker of illicit attraction between Harvey and Charlotte comes to nothing, but that aside, it’s just a heap of liberal guilt: “good” people fretting over the consequences of their opportunistic actions abroad.

If Simon Godwin’s production remains watchable enough, it’s energized by strong performances. Crane ekes out Theo’s ineffectual and unimposing side, while as Charlotte, Nixon lets politeness and pragmatism impede on her judgment. Miles is superb as the jaded showman Harvey, his glinting smile concealing a snarl, and McGovern adds a dry humor as his neglected other half. But there’s never any doubt that we’re watching nations, not people, and in nailing America, Kaye Campbell heaps too much blame on one man. You’d think Harvey was working solo, a one-man foreign policy disaster, with the abuse Charlotte gives her guest. It’s simplistic and schematic, and ultimately, forgettable as a holiday fling.

London Theater Review: Alexi Kaye Campbell's 'Sunset at the Villa Thalia'

National Theater, London; 415 seats; £59.50, $85 top. Opened, reviewed June 1, 2016. Running time: 2 HOURS ,10 MIN.

Production

A National Theatre production of a play in two acts by Alexei Kaye Campbell.

Creative

Directed by Simon Godwin. Design, Hildegard Bechtler; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, Tom Gibbons; movement, Jonathan Goddard; music, Michael Bruce.

Cast

Sophia Ally, Thomas Berry, Christos Callow, Sam Crane, Glykeria Dimou, Dixie Egerickx, Billy Marlow, Elizabeth McGovern, Ben Miles, Pippa Nixon, Scarlett Nunes, Eve Polycarpou, Ethan Rouse.

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  1. David Catchlove says:

    This play has been absolutely panned in reviews. However, if we see the political setting of the play as a vehicle for a deeper personal meaning, an interpretation might be as follows.

    The English couple, Theo and Charlotte, represent everyday morality, inspiration and behaviour. The central figure is the American, Howard, He is a soul in search of redemption, forever thwarted from reaching the hallowed position of the English couple by his profound loss of innocence.

    Howard is searching for a way to lift his burden of guilt and the play explores just how difficult this can be. Like virginity once lost, never to be regained. Witness the elements of Howard’s struggle: the Chilean boy, the “love” for Martin, the children on the beach, the attraction to Charlotte – but at every step, he is blocked.

    Howard uses his controlling and overbearing personality to bring about his salvation but it’s no good. We don’t doubt his desire for redemption – his fixation is so strong he has shunned his model wife June and wrecked his marriage. The English couple are simply a foil to allow the fascinating exploration of a very complex character. Charlotte, in particular, acts as the keeper of the couple’s moral high ground.

    Throughout Howard’s journey, while finding his past excesses repulsive, we feel an empathy for him, giving him credit for his intelligence and fierce desire to succeed in his quest to save his soul.

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