Sunday, 30 April 2017

Theatre review: Late Company

The Shaun-Hastings are setting places for a dinner party with people they don't really know. Michael (Todd Boyce) is a conservative politician recently elected to the Canadian Parliament, Debora (Lucy Robinson) a "campaign wife" and one-time artist (a steel cock-and-balls she sculpted is the first thing the audience sees in Zahra Mansouri's design when coming into the Finborough.) They've looked into their guests and are a bit worried that while they themselves are clearly wealthy, Tamara (Lisa Stevenson) and Bill (Alex Lowe) might be the wrong kind of rich, and Debora thinks they're probably a bit vulgar. The reason for this awkward comedy of manners is a lot darker than the surface makes it look. Michael and Debora had a teenage son, Joel, who killed himself some months earlier. Bill and Tamara's son Curtis (David Leopold) was a ringleader among those who bullied him to his death.

In Jordan Tannahill's Late Company the two families are attempting to deal with their respective trauma by having Debora and Curtis read letters to each other explaining their feelings.

It feels like the sort of confrontation pop-psychologists might suggest as a way of dealing with grief, and Tannahill's intense and unpredictable play feels like a condemnation of easy fixes for complex psychological issues. Needless to say after a lot of forced friendliness at the start, the cracks start to show and once the two families get to the intended confrontation, it's clear that what Debora wants from this evening is something she can never have.

Plays whose whole point is to look at how a situation is more complex than can be easily explained in its running time can fall into the trap of trying to do just that, but Late Company avoids it by only touching on the number of factors behind Joel's suicide, and while the characters are all too keen to assign blame, the play never does. It touches on homophobic bullying and how Joel's in-your-face campness bordered on bullying in itself, and probably the cleverest balancing act Tannahill pulls off is raising the issue of the dead boy going down a self-destructive path without feeling like it's victim-blaming.

Director Michael Yale keeps things simple and lets the action flow quickly, letting the story's surprises unfold and change the tone of the piece each time. A couple of times it borders on implausibility to do so - Debora not knowing about her son's caustic drag persona on YouTube is stretching it a bit, although the script even acknowledges this. All the cast are good although Tannahill has given the women the best parts, Stevenson's Tamara a bundle of nervous tics and Robinson's Debora a piranha in a statement necklace, the whole evening a series of traps for the boy she blames for her son's death, from the petty - it's strongly implied she deliberately laid on an all-seafood meal so the allergic Curtis will have to go without* - to an attempt to psychologically scar him for life. But in the end the play stays even-handed and compassionate, and able to find uncomfortable humour even in its darkest moments.

Late Company by Jordan Tannahill is booking until the 20th of May at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Charlie Round-Turner.

*I did wonder if we had a rare sighting of Chekhov's Shrimp, but in the end Tannahill avoids the melodrama of having her force-feed him prawn cocktail TO THE DEATH

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