Wednesday 3 November 2010

Review: The Company Man (Orange Tree Theatre)

Photo: Robert Day

“We don’t get these moments back!” cries a character towards the emotional climax of Torben Betts’s uneven but engaging new play The Company Man, which closes this Saturday at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. It’s a line that cuts straight to the heart of the play’s concern with issues of time and choice. Directed by Adam Barnard, The Company Man juxtaposes scenes from the past in the life of a family, the Carmichaels, with scenes set over a weekend in the present, when the clan have gathered together, along with an old friend and neighbour, Jim (Nicholas Lumley), for the first time in years. The father, Bill (Bruce Alexander), is a self-made, working-class man who delights in boasting about the struggles he’s overcome. His wife, Jane (Isla Blair), is a motor neurone disease sufferer who’s confined to a wheelchair and is being cared for by their daughter Cathy (Beatrice Curnew), a nurse. Their son, Richard (Jack Sandle), is a failed musician bitterly resentful towards his father, and his arrival kicks off a weekend in which tensions surface and old wounds are opened. Gradually the flashbacks help us piece together the events that have led these characters to this point.

The set-up sounds familiar enough: there are hints of Ayckbourn throughout (Betts is a Stephen Joseph Theatre alumnus) and a whiff of regurgitated Eugene O’Neill (via Arthur Miller) to the father-son conflicts in the piece. Though the play and production don’t have anything like the consistency of the superb last Orange Tree show, The Thunderbolt, at its best, The Company Man is surprising, insightful and moving. The balance between the protagonists is well achieved and the characters are all drawn in more than one-dimension. Alexander introduces Bill as a rather innocuous, if terminally pedantic, man, a bird-watcher, cricket-lover and classical music aficionado, which makes the character’s sudden explosions into anger all the more disturbing. (I do wish, though, that the play didn't have to be quite so explicit in pinning his temper on his treatment at the hands of a “brutal” father who in turn was traumatised by his experience in World War II etc.) Nicholas Lumley is deeply sympathetic as the friend who’s sought solace from loneliness in Christianity and who’s own complex history with Jane is gradually revealed, while Curnew and Sandle also have very affecting moments.

Ultimately, though, the evening belongs to Isla Blair who, as Jane, gives perhaps the least-heralded great performance currently to be seen on a London stage. Subtle, warm, bristling with feeling, she’s simply marvellous here. The structure of the play requires her to make lightening-fast on-stage transitions between physically-able (yet trapped) wife dismayed by the conflicts in the family home and MND-afflicted woman thinking back over her life and wondering what the sacrifices she’s made for others have really amounted to. Blair accomplishes this demanding task with consummate skill. The subtlety of her performance isn’t always matched by Betts’s writing: there's some pontificating on class and capitalism that feels intrusive, a little too much shouting in the second half, and a final reconciliation that’s too rushed to ring entirely true. The production is occasionally over-reliant on scenes of parallel action (with the danger that the audience doesn’t become fully involved in what’s happening on either side of the stage) but Sam Dowson’s set evokes the interior and exterior of the family home with economy, and the abrupt shifts between past and present are well handled. It's in its quieter, more measured scenes that The Company Man resonates the strongest, though. Jane observing the beauty of the morning, and lamenting all the other mornings she’s taken for granted throughout her life, was the moment that touched me most.

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