So it was with Sunset at the Villa Thalia, currently playing at the NT’s Dorfman theatre (aka the theatre with the worth sightlines in London). A new play by Alexi Kaye Campbell, of The Pride fame, Sunset is one of those slightly irksome plays in which nothing actually happens. And, in this case, it happens particularly poorly.
Now I don’t mind plays that are just people talking about stuff per se, as long as they have something interesting to say about the stuff said people are talking about. And this is the problem with Sunset: it just doesn’t. Its attempts at profound thinking include the observations that sometimes American foreign policy is not always completely altruistic and that a capitalist economy is not always 100% fair. Its views on the Pope’s religion were sadly omitted.
Structurally, the play seems to work very hard to actively expose its lack of depth. After a reasonably fun and breezy first half that I actually quite enjoyed, the second half is where all the ‘serious analysis’ tries to happen. It makes for one of the least subtle, most heavy handed and least engaging hours of theatre I’ve seen this year. The exchanges on American foreign policy (the lead character is a foreign operative for the Us Government) in particular are cringeworthy in their lack of sophistication. It’s like a particularly poorly written Guardian opinion piece made flesh.
The writing is ok, though again the first half is stronger, with some decent jokes and pithy observations. But again the ‘serious’ bits are weak and lightweight. Maybe someone should have upgraded the playwright’s GCSE history of Latin America textbook to an A Level one at least. This flows into the characterisation too, where portraits are very broad brush (bohemian British playwright and leftwing yummy mummy wife vs scheming American and drunk trophy wife) and motivations are almost always left unexplained. This means where character development is attempted, rarely, it really doesn’t make that much sense.
The production does have a redeeming feature, and it’s a considerable one in the shape of the reliably excellent Ben Miles in the lead role. His part - Harvey, the scheming US Government man - is by far the best written and realised and Miles is, reliably, excellent in it. He manages to make Harvey a far more relatable and sympathetic character than he really should be, even managing to pull some of the historio-political nonsense back from the brink. To continue a theme, he is even better in the first half when Harvey is at his most fun and charming. Elizabeth McGovern is fun too as his boozy wife June, the only problem being that I don’t really understand what her character adds to the play - she’s fine when she’s just providing comic relief but attempts to round her out into something fuller are at best of limited success. Simon Godwin’s direction is also, as ever, very good and mercifully pacey. I’m not sure I could’ve stood this production being much longer.
Overall, then, Sunset at the Villa Thalia is one you can afford to miss. Ben Miles being his usual excellent self isn’t enough to justify the price of a ticket, especially given the price point for an unrestricted view in the Dorfman.
And if you were wondering, it was Bertie Carvel in the audience. Regular readers will be unsurprised to learn that I therefore consider the price of my ticket was entirely justified.
Sunet at the Villa Thalia plays in the Dorfman at the NT until 4th August.