The December Man/L'homme de Décembre

Colleen Murphy
Constructive Interference Theatre
Finborough Theatre
(2011)

The December Man production photo

The unfunded Finborough theatre does terrific service to plays and playwrights, young and old, with its rediscoveries and productions of new work. Accolades and awards rain down. And long may this continue in the capable, caring and imaginative hands of artistic director Neil McPherson. It is always worth a visit, and such good value for money, that one can take a risk on an overestimated or under-prepared play.

As part of its In Their Place three-month season of work by women playwrights, three of the theatre's Sunday/Monday slots in the season are given to the debut in the UK of 'multi-award-winning Canadian playwright', Colleen Murphy, also their Playwright-in-Residence, with a European premiere, a UK premiere and a world premiere of her work.

The first, the European premiere of The December Man, has won her several awards, including Canada's prestigious Governor General's Literary Award for English Language Drama in 2007. Finborough gave it a staged reading in 2009, and now it has been developed by the Constructive Interference Theatre into a full-blown seventy-minute no interval production under the direction of fellow Canadian Lavinia Hollands.

Still a bit ragged around the edges, the play tackles the problem of survivor guilt; how the repercussions of a national trauma impact on a tight-knit poor family in Montreal between the years 1989 and 1992.

The 6th December 1989 Montreal massacre at the École Polytechnique, when twenty-five-year-old Marc Lépine shot twenty-eight people before killing himself claiming that he was 'fighting feminism', raises many issues, not just institutionalised misogyny. It traumatised a peaceful nation. The day is now commemorated as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

The programme notes are invaluable for clarification of the specific background detail, but this could be any family reacting to any private/public trauma in a historical context. Primo Levi wrote about his own survivor's guilt after Auschwitz, and, as we know, in the end it did claim his life.

Similarly, the survivor, Jean Fournier, a student at the college, is troubled by his own cowardice. His day- and nightmares plague him with what he might have done. He might have saved the women. People fall apart even with help. Families fall apart at the very moment they should hold together. The fissures grow.

His working-class parents have pinned all their dreams on him, the first to go to college - another heavy burden, as is his mother's overbearing Catholic religiosity. She smothers him with nagging attention and worry, whilst his father, under her thumb, is ineffectual. Together they are unable to survive their only son's (a precious late child) unhinged solution to his trauma.

The ripples of public slaughter pierce the private life of disadvantaged folk. She's a cleaner to the tight-fisted wealthy; he's a mechanic with a polio limp. The son was their beacon of hope. But it is not only extreme events that impinge on a young mind - the daily drip of unkindnesses and inequality, the lack of money and daily economies, the resentments, the hatred that is poured down children's throats, Colleen Murphy makes clear, also deform the mind.

Told in reverse sequence the play ends with the joy of relief that their child is alive, supposedly made all the more poignant by the knowledge of where that will lead with which the play opens.

I am not entirely convinced that this retrospective view is more effective than a linear telling of the disintegration of the family. The storyline is strong enough to stand alone without gimmick.

The closeness of the audience, embracing this intimate drama from both sides of a traverse stage, exposes a production that has yet to hit its stride. The closeness exposes the audience too - to self-scrutiny.

Sundays and Mondays till 21st March 2011

Reviewer: Vera Liber