I have a friend and relative called Henry who works at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, Surrey, England, and he invited me there for the first night of a new play. Oddly enough, I nearly went off the idea whilst sitting on the train from Lewes to Clapham Junction because I had the misfortune to be sitting near to a man in his late middle age who had the voice of unreconstructed luvviedom. It soon became apparent, as there was no hiding place from his booming mobile phone conversation, that here was a playwright talking through the ending of his masterwork with a long-suffering theatre director.
“If you think it will work then of course it will work for me. I rely on your interpretation, of course I do. I just don’t think that ending with a realistic party scene is what I was imagining when I thought of this scene. It is more a question of the main characters going off into a magical world of their own imaginings. They have all been on a journey, and, at the end, they need to internalise where they have arrived. I don’t want to impose my views though but do you intent to fade to black at the end………”
And so on and so on. When the conversation finally drew to an end, the great man gushed: “Well, I am sure it is going to be wonderful, I just can’t wait to see it.” If his potential audience had been party to this phonecall then I fear, he would be sitting in the auditorium on his own.
I nearly rang Henry to tell him that I had suddenly gone off the idea of theatre but, luckily, I was not scheduled to see any of the masterly works of my odious travelling companion. I know there is a possible conflict of interests here and maybe I shouldn’t attempt reviewing a performance where I was an invited guest but, hey, here goes.
The play being premiered at the Orange Tree was The Company Man by Torben Betts, a youngish Alan Ayckbourn protege who, in an interesting interview printed in the play’s programme, claims to write in two different styles, social realism that “follow the laws of probability” and “other plays”…where “anything happens at any time, much more theatrical….characters can go on and say anything and they don’t need to have a back story.”
The Company Man, disappointingly I thought at first, is one of his social realism plays and is concerned with a dysfunctional family coming together for the final days of the mother’s life as she struggles with the distressing effects of motor neurone disease and faces up to the bitter realities of a life endured under the thumb of a bullying and insensitive husband with two emotionally damaged children. Not a bundle of laughs then, this play, but it is powerful stuff and worth seeing, if for nothing else, for the magnificent performances of Isla Blair as the mother and Nicholas Lumley as her lifelong friend and would-be lover, James. Whenever these actors are holding the stage, the electricity is both exciting and tear-jerking in the most “social realistic” of ways. If these performances were seen in the West End, I would be looking for some awards going their way but, sadly the theatrical world is not like that these days.
The playwright has some personal experience of the terrible progress of wasting diseases and he finds his truest voice when dealing with the mother’s heroic and distressingly honest view of her life.
Elsewhere, I was less convinced by the writing. Ostensibly, the play centres around the over-bearing father-figure, William, here played by the always energetic Bruce Alexander. William is a self-made man who rams his views and his achievements down the throats of anyone who is listening, or not as the case may be. Unfortunately, for me anyway, Torben Betts manages to under-write the character by giving him too many words. His catch-phrases repeated too often for easy laughter, grate after a while, his observations, intended to be insensitive and unattractive, often come over as just boring and when he is supposed to be boring to his family, I found myself switching off altogether.
Torben Betts’ social realism touches, with William as his mouthpiece, on such issues as capitalism, religion and repressive middle class values but too often William’s speeches caricature the most obvious generalisations of the so-called silent majority. I suspect the writer is much more interesting when he is writing in that other style that he refers to, where he is not so much of a slave to the “laws of probability.”
Strange though it sounds, the very fact that his main character manages so often to lose our attention, means that the play doesn’t sink under the weight of its central theme, which is, after-all, a well-worn one. It gave me the opportunity to enjoy the play’s imagination and emotionality brought across with some clever cross-cutting techniques. There are some inventive uses of time and space where the characters step out of one period in their lives and walk seamlessly into another and these are handled smoothly by the director Adam Barnard who, on other occasions, maybe, muddled his geography when we had to imagine, within the simple set, that we were in the house or the garden. There were also some imaginative juxtapositions when different pairs of dialogues took place simultaneously on different parts of the stage and, even though, the production never quite synchronised them tightly enough, I, for one, was moved by the suffering of the other characters whilst poor Bruce Alexander was reciting his vast acreage of lines which, in the end became mere aural wallpaper.
Maybe this is what Torben Betts means by social realism. Certainly, we were left in no doubt that it would have driven anyone into depression, alcoholism or despair to have to live with this father from Hell. Sadly though, the writing of William’s inability to express his feelings to his family or to stop talking generalities, makes him a superficial character for us too.
Enough quibbling though because, after the emotional onslaught of this play, any small problems in my own life evaporated into insignificance and that, my friends, is one of the functions of theatre. In the intense atmosphere of the Orange Tree’s theatre-in-the-round, I was truly drawn into the writer’s bleak vision by two performances which are still playing in my head. Isla Blair and Nicholas Lumley, I salute you and cried with you.
So forget my niggles, you don’t need to tell me, OK, I know I am just as monstrous as the play’s main character so don’t let me put you off. The important thing is that here is a brave theatre company putting on new work by a young writer with a cast that could not be bettered anywhere. If you like theatre, get yourselves a ticket.
The Company Man runs from 6th October until 6th November 2010.
It is now available as a paperback or on Kindle (go to your region’s Amazon site for Kindle orders)
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