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Sunset at the Villa Thalia review at National Theatre, London – ‘unconvincing’

A scene from Sunset at Villa Thalia. Photo: Manuel Harlan A scene from Sunset at Villa Thalia. Photo: Manuel Harlan

A young playwright and his wife meet an enigmatic American couple while holidaying on Skiathos in the 1960s. Harvey is charismatic and persuasive. It doesn’t take long before he’s convinced them to buy the beautiful cottage in which they’re staying from the poverty-stricken owners for a handful of drachmas, taking advantage of the economic situation to buy the Greek dream.

Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play, Sunset at the Villa Thalia, opens in 1967, the year of the military coup before skipping forwards in time to the 1970s where we see the fall out of the characters’ actions. But despite Hildegard Bechtler’s sun-washed evocative set, the Greek setting feels oddly superfluous. The play’s preoccupations – with economic migration, gentrification, and cultural appropriation – and the way it discusses them feel jarringly contemporary.

Nor are the characters particularly convincing. Ben Miles invests Harvey, the shady CIA operative, with a degree of complexity. He’s charming but also haunted, driven by unshakeable self-belief, but far from blind to the cost of his actions. But the rest of the characters are stock types – Elizabeth McGovern is lumbered with a thankless role as Harvey’s rum-sodden wife (she can’t have children, so of course she drinks like a fish) and the usually delightful Sam Crane is underused in the role of the playwright. Pippa Nixon also brings nuance to her role as the play’s conscience, but Simon Godwin’s production is lacking in tension, both sexual and dramatic, and the way in which it uses the Greek characters as catalysts and background colour makes, at times makes the play seem guilty of some of the same things it’s discussing.

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Initially intriguing but ultimately unconvincing new play set in 1960s Greece