Benefactors by Michael Frayn. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, June 16 – July 22, 2023.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Director – Mark Kilmurry
Assistant Director – Margaret Thanos
Set & Costume Designer – Nick Fry
Lighting Designer – Matt Cox
Sound Designer – David Grigg
Dialect Coach - Linda Nicholls-Gidley
Hair Stylist – Lindsey Chapman
Jane – Emma Palmer David – Gareth Davies
Sheila – Megan Drury Colin – Matt Minto
Photos by Prudence Upton
|David enthuses about skyscrapers|
L-R: Megan Drury, Matt Minto, Gareth Davies, Emma Palmer
as Sheila, Colin, David and Jane
in Benefactors by Michael Frayn, Ensemble Theatre 2023
Photo: Prudence Upton
Like theatres everywhere, Ensemble nowadays asks for donations: This year, we’re celebrating an amazing 65 years. Your support is key to our ongoing success, creating exceptional theatre that you have come to expect from Ensemble.
As Wikipedia informs us: It is Australia's longest continuously running professional theatre group, having given its first performance in Cammeray Children's Library on 11 May 1958. It relocated to the current premises in the old boatshed on the shore of Careening Cove in 1960.
As theatre enthusiast, drama teacher and reviewer I have watched the inspirational leadership of founder Hayes Gordon, then Sandra Bates from 1986 – while Hayes continued to run the Ensemble Studios acting school until his death in 1999 – and then Sandra’s protégé Mark Kilmurry since her retirement in 2015.
I am certain this production of Benefactors would make Hayes and Sandra proud. Mark’s directing of the actors’ characterisations show all the essential elements of Hayes’ instructive approach to Stanislavsky and method acting (Acting and Performing 1992), and of Sandra’s precision of style, which are the core of great theatre. The Ensemble remains a small, personal, human theatre which fulfils the social import expressed in the song by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly, From Little Things Big Things Grow.
This is exactly how Michael Frayn’s play works. David is an architect, but the twist is that in the end it’s the big things – like what the community really want – that make his ambition to build 50-storey skyscrapers for housing people, come to nought. But David is really a very nice man, while his nemesis, Colin, who leads the anti-skyscraper campaign, is worse than unlikeable. No wonder Sheila, Colin’s wife, is in love with David; while David’s wife Jane has to admit she has just a touch of the dark side, like Colin – but only just enough for her to turn out to be the only practical one of the four.
The great thing about Kilmurry choosing this play – and working so well with such finely-tuned actors – is that Frayn writes with a surprising yet satisfying combination of a depth of concern for his characters with a great sense of humour. Time and again, we find ourselves laughing while recognising how real these characters’ thoughts and feelings are – in ourselves. Each character at different points of conflict tells us directly, individually, how they remember what really happened so that we are not always on the outside looking on, but every now and then take part in the story, as if we had met Jane, Sheila, Colin or David over coffee, at least as acquaintances if not exactly friends.
This device, time-shifting, brings out the clever side of Michael Frayn – and it works a treat.
And then, in addition, here is a play, written in 1984 but, through the characters’ reminiscences about what had actually happened back in the 1960s, reflecting on the very issues – social housing, homelessness, the inflating costs of houses, and the inability of the well-enough off to understand – which London was facing then and we face again today.
|Matt Minto as Colin in anti-skyscraper campaign mode|
Megan Drury as Sheila, reading report
in Benefactors, Ensemble 2023
So, in my view, you have no excuse for not going to Kirribilli to see Benefactors in the Ensemble boatshed. Or perhaps Jordan Best, at The Q, that also quite small if not quite as intimate theatre in Queanbeyan, might make an arrangement with Mark Kilmurry. I’m sure it would work very well there.
|Megan Drury and Emma Palmer|
as Sheila and Jane
in Benefactors, Ensemble 2023