Review by Alison Stoddart
Benefactors, a compelling piece of comedic theatre written by Michael Frayn, beautifully tells the story of human connection, charity, and hardship within a statistically driven 1960s society. On June 21st, this play was brought to life by director Mark Kilmurry and the rest of the Ensemble Theatre team in front of a live and hospitable audience. The story follows the relationship between two leading couples, David and Jane, and Colin and Sheila, as they begin to question the nature of each other’s actions and what it means to be inherently charitable. As tension gradually arises between the characters on stage, we are left as an audience to reflect on what it truly means to selflessly ‘help’ someone, and whether that can be achieved side by side with personal ambition and desire. What does it mean to be a benefactor? The play experiments with this theme through paralleling satirical commentary of the 1960s housing crisis with the complexities of human connection conveyed by the characters on stage. The first thing that stands out about Kilmurry’s production of Benefactors is his ability to smoothly transition between time-jumps and 4th wall breaks. The play itself is delightfully non-linear and abstract in the ways that it uses theatrical elements to jump back and forth between each character’s inner monologue and the current ongoings of each scene. The audience is able to personally connect with each character through this structure, while simultaneously providing context surrounding how the story is progressing. The actors do a wonderful job at conveying this; as with each subtle metatheatrical glance, the audience is automatically swayed to empathise with exactly how the character is feeling in each moment. Kilmurry’s ability to manipulate set and lighting was also put on full display here. As soon as I took my first steps into the theatre, I was immediately enamoured with the intimate and inviting ambiance that engulfed the room. The stage itself was stationed remarkably close to the audience, with seats surrounding center-stage to form a spherical, welcoming shape. As a result, it really felt as though the audience was a part of the story, which was further enhanced by warm lighting, open staging of the set, and engagement of the characters with the audience. The Ensemble Theatre’s take on Frayn’s play stayed true to the original source material of a 1960’s setting, straying away from a modernised version of the narrative. This allowed for fun and quirky costuming and set design that was able to accurately represent the period of the play. The overall aesthetic of the production was highly stylised to fit a vintage, hippie yet sophisticated look, which was visually engaging and felt perfectly organic with the ongoing story. Although, the play was unfortunately missing modern inspiration with regard to systemic controversies. The female characters were largely confined to stereotypes that at times made the play feel dated and unsympathetic. Kilmurray’s directorial vision for this reimagining of Benefactors was to convey how ‘relationships, of course, are timeless, and the beauty of the play is in the recognition of ourselves’. This was beautifully achieved through the aesthetics and deliberation of the original script, which was brought to life splendidly by the Ensemble and cast.