Bruce Alexander, Isla Blair, Beatrice Curnew, Nicholas Lumley and Jack Sandle
"You notice everything when you can’t move." So says the wheelchair-bound wife and mother in Torben Betts’s play and, indeed, this theme of watching from the sidelines and being unable to communicate is central to the play which places human beings as mere micro-organisms in an infinitely larger and harsher sphere. |
The word 'company' can refer to both business and friendship, and the eponymous Company Man's decision to prize industrial success above everything is what ultimately isolates him from humanity at large.
Betts is a protégé of Alan Ayckbourn and the play is a rather bleak family drama with plenty of apocalyptic references. Betts portrays this family as embodying the best and the worst of this changeable world, in which anything can be achieved through hard work, but terrible illnesses can also strike anyone, regardless of privilege.
It's set in a lavish home in the leafy Home Counties, though Sam Dowson’s very simple set, consisting of a chintzy sofa, a garden table and chairs, a bedside cabinet and photographic prints of the play’s recurring motifs could belong to a family of any income. It is an oddly sterile and impersonal setting for a family home, perhaps intended to evoke the way in which the house is merely a gathering place, but like the play itself, only partially rings true.
The story is dominated by William Carmichael (Bruce Alexander), a self-made working class man, who endured a traumatic childhood and made his own way up to the top, which he never lets anyone forget. His resentment towards anyone who hasn’t had to overcome to same obstacles is what poisons his relationship with his son. It is difficult to feel much sympathy towards a character who is not engaging enough to earn it. His recurring catchphrases guarantee laughs from the audience, but although I appreciate that the repetitiveness of his lectures about cricket statistics, ornithology and capitalism are to illuminate his unwillingness to listen to others or connect with anything more emotionally complicated than bare facts, it is tempting for both his onstage and offstage audiences to grow restless during these tirades.
Isla Blair is excellent as his wife Jane, amongst the last of a ‘dying breed’ of women brought up to serve their husbands and under the death sentence of the horribly debilitating Motor Neurone Disease. Blair poignantly embodies Jane’s determination to maintain her dignity and sense of irony through the pain, and her resolve to make the final decision about her illness.
Nicholas Lumley has the well-meaning but unconvincing role of family friend Jim, who always wanted to be more than friends with Jane and has now found God, offering kindly meant but most unhelpful rhetoric about suffering being a blessing. Beatrice Curnew is nicely restrained in the underwritten role of the self-sacrificing carer daughter Cathy and Jack Sandle is appropriately volatile as prodigal son Richard.
The Company Man is well performed and full of ideas with some striking astronomical imagery, but it's somewhat let down by the characterisation. The permanently in-the-round Orange Tree Theatre is a wonderful space and although Adam Barnard’s direction (he previously directed Betts’s play The Swing of Things at the Stephen Joseph Theatre) is clear and unobtrusive, one rarely feels entirely absorbed in the proceedings.
- Julia Rank