Benefactors is the second play in Sheffield Theatres’ celebration of the work of Michael Frayn. Like much of Frayn’s work (and in particular the plays Daniel Evans has chosen to showcase during this season), it tackles complex and often morally ambiguous issues – in this case, the relationship between architecture and social reform in the 1960s – and frames them in an accessible, intimate way.
The play, first performed in 1984, is about an idealistic architect and his good-natured wife. David dreams of revitalising the South London slum of Basuto Road with well-built new housing, but he is soon forced into designing low-cost, high-rise ‘skyscrapers’ despite his dislike for them as buildings. His wife, Jane, becomes increasingly caught up in the life of her harassed neighbour Sheila, who is stuck in an unhappy marriage with a cynical and cruel journalist, Colin. He, in turn, has joined a group protesting against David’s well-intentioned plans.
It’s the relationship between these two couples that gives Benefactors much of its momentum, yet the questions it raises about idealism and social change are very much relevant today. Like Copenhagen, currently playing at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre, this is a dense, layered play, and one that requires a skilled cast to fully do it justice. As David, Simon Wilson is excellent, a man of optimism and ideals who gradually succumbs to disillusionment and disappointment as his plans fall to pieces around him. Abigail Cruttenden is delicately understated as Jane, but it’s Rebecca Lacey and Andrew Woodall who really make the production shine. As Colin, Woodall is monstrously supercilious and cynical; he’s in many ways a totally repellent character, yet in Woodall’s hands he is also utterly compelling. As Sheila, Lacey captivates from her first appearance as the mousy, beaten-down housewife in the process of becoming more and more frustrated with her lot in life.
Frayn’s play is typically rich in its writing and inventive in terms of its structure, with each of the four characters taking turns to play narrator; Benefactors skewers liberal idealism and unpicks the ethos behind brutalist architecture while also being very funny in the process. David and Jane’s principles are slowly eroded until both of them admit that they basically “don’t like people”, while the character of Colin cynically links the tabloid hack and the protester.
Designer Signe Beckmann’s detailed recreation of a 1960s middle-class home roots the production firmly in a particular place and time while director Charlotte Gwinner makes superb use of the Crucible Studio’s intimate dimensions, even if a later scene featuring a particularly volatile domestic incident makes for uneasy viewing, an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism. Both this production and this season as a whole are superb reminders of how prescient and relevant much of Frayn’s writing remains.