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The Company Man

Torben Betts
Orange Tree Theatre
(2010)

The Company Man production photo

William Carmichael worked his way up from warehouse boy to Managing Director of a chain of wine stores. He has a big house in the London commuter belt and sent his son to one of the best schools but a life of hard graft has left him with few social skills outside the boardroom. On a domestic and personal level he simply doesn't take in what is said to him and makes it almost impossible to get a word in edgeways. He angers easily and even when calm sounds hectoring. He may have made a fortune but as a father and a husband he is a disaster. Yet as Bruce Alexander plays him he's not a total monster, you get a sense of the insecurity that he suppresses by steamrollering over everyone and of the good intentions that he wants but somehow never manages to follow through.

William knows his wife is dying - she has motor neurone disease - but he carries on as normal, meticulously noting down the birds he sees in the garden, dispensing nuggets of knowledge with an oft repeated "were you aware of that fact." It may seem totally preoccupied with self but that is his way of coping.

Wife Jane declares "women like me were bred to be loyal to our men folk - like dogs really." There was something twenty years ago that perhaps she wishes she had done that could have changed her life. Now she wants to see the son who (his father's precise count) has not been to visit for 4 years, one month and 16 days, though even that is not exactly true. Son Richard does in fact arrive; on the insistence of his self-sacrificing sister Cathy who has put her life on hold to look after her mother. Also turning up for the weekend is a former neighbour, James, who clearly was once in love with Jane.

There is a potent mixture here of love, hate, devotion and disapproval that flares into dramatic confrontations that sometimes seem theatrically contrived but I no sooner had that reaction than I recognized each incident could be matched with one I have known among my own acquaintance and, in such an inflammable situation, it is reasonable dramatic licence to pack them all into one week end. In fact Betts doesn't, for the play slips effortlessly back over nearly forty years exploring the incidents that have created these familial tensions as well as skilfully interweaving scenes that take place concurrently in the garden, lounge or bedroom.

Isla Blair is a perfect Jane, calm and controlled as a well-brought up girl like her is supposed to be, a mother whose life centred around her little sun, when she tells him how she loved the smell of his baby skin and couldn't stop kissing his little neck you almost smell her milk, but now she is in a wheelchair, control of her limbs almost entirely gone and facing the approach of death.

"I do have regrets," she tells her devoted daughter. "I want to go with a clean slate." Blair gives her a rasping voice, already affected by her disease, and makes us feel the constraints of her immobility. The transitions between the invalid and the warm and lively woman of earlier years are beautifully managed by simply rising from her wheelchair or a collapse from which she is caught and carried to it and director Adam Barnard handles the interweaving of present and past and scene with scene by simply and definitively changing the focus of the action and lighting, with a momentary freezing of the other performers when action runs simultaneously.

Nicholas Lumley's old neighbour, potter James, just avoids being too good to be true. There is just a hint in the performance that the failure of his marriage may have been because he was gay, perhaps without realising it: his devoted behaviour to Jane shows little sign of physical eroticism and he certainly has that safe feeling of the favourite unmarried uncle. With a scarf and a walking stick Lumley makes simple but effective transitions from middle age to the pensioner who has found companionship in Christianity.

In Beatrice Curnew's Cathy, a trained nurse, you can see the sense of duty she has inherited from her mother but she also gives her a determination. You know she really will make a life of her own as soon as she feels free to do so. The future for Richard looks much more bleak, already feeling a failure, his marriage in trouble and his wine consumption no solution. Jack Sandle gives him a growing hysteria as he slides into drunkenness, reaching for the bottle even as he promises to sober up. He may be crying out for sympathy but the actor never plays for audience sympathy so that we see just how much damage his upbringing has done.

Betts is taking on serious issues but, however distressing things may be when one is going through them, they have their funny side and there is humour here too, whether James' finding religion or William's stock remarks. Perhaps he also intends this study of domestic malfunction to have a wider significance, a metaphor for the malfunction of our society. William, while seeming to defend capitalism as a system, is dogmatically clear-sighted in his vision of a doomed ecology, and the newly-religious James speaks for a form of Christian socialism. It is not developed beyond one conversation but, painted in black and white, the relationship between boss and worker could be seen reflected in the violence of William's own upbringing and in his own relationship with his son.

Run ends 6th November 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton