Even Ben Miles can't quite save this thin, unsubtle drama about western intervention in Greece
Shifty-eyed ex-sitcom star Ben Miles is one of my favourite actors out there - his stage Cromwell in 'Wolf Hall' was easily as good Rylance's telly one, and he brings a real sense of febrile danger to any part he plays.
He's good enough in Alexi Kaye Campbell's latest to offer some distraction from the fact the play itself is basically awful... but sadly not quite.
'Sunset at the Villa Thalia' is a sort of allegorical melodrama about a nice young English couple (Sam Crane’s Theo and Pippa Nixon’s Charlotte) who holiday at a house on a rustic Greek island in 1967 and end up buying the place for a pittance at the behest of absurd, enigmatic American Harvey (Miles) and his boozy wife June (Elizabeth McGovern). Theo and Charlotte can't believe the deal they've made with the owner Maria (Glykeria Dinou) – who is emigrating to Australia to start a new life – and they really shouldn't, because the whole thing is a wearingly heavy-handed allegory for the west's interventions in Greece in the modern era.
Campbell might have pulled it off if he'd dug into Greece more, but he's basically written a play about four westerners expositing on a beach, the allegorical dimension occasionally popping up to batter you into submission.
Actually I enjoyed the first half hour or so of Simon Godwin’s production. There is an almost horror movie sense of anticipation as the two wide-eyed, ingenue Brits falling in with the affable but clearly highly manipulative Harvey, who breaks out lofty, Uncle Sam-ish rhetoric to persuade Maria it’s fine to sell – she promised her late grandmother she wouldn’t – and the young, liberal Brits (they work in theatre!) that it’s okay to buy it for a song. But then news of the generals’ coup comes over the radio: Charlotte confronts Harvey over his involvement via a long, overwrought speech; Harvey responds with an even less plausible speech; the second half, set a decade later, is wall-to-wall implausible speeches, as Charlotte takes Harvey to task for America’s entire foreign policy, while he responds by improbably divulging the byzantine consequences of their decision to buy the villa.
If the characters were stronger you could forgive the clunkiness, but they’re on about one dimension each, Theo probably not that. The cast make the best of it, and I genunely would watch Miles in anything: his Harvey is the best thing here, a seamless mix of irritating American holiday maker and sinister American foreign agent. But it’s not enough to make this lumberingly unsubtle play a worthwhile summer destination.