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The Company Man, by Torben Betts

Monday, 11 October, 2010

The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, 19:45, 6th October- 6th November 2010 (2hrs 25 with interval)

This two-act play explores the history and future of a dysfunctional family and a troubled marriage with impressive impact.  At the same time, the production remains compellingly true to life.  Torben Betts’s touchingly humorous yet tragic script is handled subtly and maturely by all cast members.  Special mention must go to Bruce Alexander and Isla Blair. The one for his carefully paced, necessarily painfully slow, character progression, and the other for her brilliant adaptability – from energetic, bright-eyed, middle class and unable to make herself heard, to trapped in a wheelchair, struggling to speak but finally the centre of attention.

The Orange Tree Theatre boasts a reputation for being ‘the only permanent In the Round Theatre in London.’  This is all very well, but staging such an intimate production this way requires especial sensitivity of both direction and design.  To their credit, Adam Bernard (Director), Sam Dowsen (Designer) and notably William Reynolds (Lighting Designer), understand their space completely.  A Victorian chintz sofa with perfectly matching cushions, a small coffee table and pearl-peach light create the living room. Spin round and you enter the garden, remarkably it becomes impossible not to imagine the French door that separates them.  Dark green metal patio furniture, a soft limelight, speckled with yellow and the twitter of birds.  The final space is the Jane’s (Isla Blair’s) sick room. Cut off in a far corner, this white lit square, home only to a small night-stand bedecked with medicines and a CD player and digital video camera with its small hanging nightlight, is both disconcerting and strangely tranquil.

The play opens with a celestial shaft of light as Jane (Isla Blair) is wheeled in by her adult daughter Cathy (Beatrice Curnew).  William Reynolds’ lightscape provides a stark premonition of the play’s finally scene.  Quickly this light flashes out with the wave of brightness caused as a car passes under a bay window at night.  We hear the car.  Moments later James (Jack Sandle) confronts his sister Cathy in the opposite corner of the stage.

This first scene gets the play off to a slow start.  Beatrice Curnew’s acting is rather forced.  Her forward-jutting head and world-weary voice force her into a fixed state.  Her actions lack the presence that comes more naturally to the other cast members.  But then, Cathy is a hard character to play.  She (the character) excites an unpleasant and unremitting sense of pity in the audience which risks becoming tedious. To Beatrice Curnew’s credit she has created a character who is not really present to portray a coping mechanism.  Sadly this is a-dramatic.  Jack Sandle’s initial performance also feels a little stifled.  The pace is slow, the dialogue tired and James’ alcoholism (represented by him removing a bottle of wine and glass from his hold-all and lounging on the floor like a tipsy cat) is rather contrived.  The audience is left anxious that this is going to a very clichéd two hours indeed. The next scene, in which Jane is introduced, does little to relieve the worry. Isla Blair’s grating voice and paralysed left side are an expert portrayal of her illness but do slow the play’s pace horribly in this opening sequence and it is hard to care for the rather two-dimensional characters being set up.

However, the human encyclopaedia that is William (Bruce Alexander) brings an entirely new energy and life to the stage. He is a dangerous ball of brewing anger.  Bruce Alexander’s portrayal is flawless.  His rigid posture to his gormless mouth and slightly popping eyes, his northern twang and his contorted facial expressions all come together to create a perfect caricature.  Yet what make his performance special are the touches of softness that are undeniably there.  The play builds momentum wonderfully as it intertwines past and present action, clearly delineated through Isla Blair’s faultlessly swift changes from immobility to sparkling life. From the demonic father with a bloodied face and a belt in his hand, shouting his son out of his house, to a smiling ball of tense humour, perched on the sofa offering to take his wife to London for a show, “you can’t fault a Lloyd Webber!” Bruce Alexander’s William keeps the play alive while like a puppet, Isla Blair is heart-breakingly trampled by her husband in her days of good health, and in the present, carried by her daughter to her prison-like chair.

In act two, credit, while remaining with all the cast, must go to Jack Sandle. Faced with the impossible task of making James, an aging and manic-depressive selfish brat with a drink problem, human and subtle he succeeds.  “If you’re gonna scream at me” he shouts into his iphone, his rant interjected seamlessly with snippets of his father ranting about the benefits of capitalism from the garden, “then you’re gonna have to scream at me in English!”  His marriage to his “little Thai bride” is falling apart.  Jack Sandle’s comic timing is impeccable.  His childish grief, however, is unnervingly believable, “I don’t want her to die.” He repeats again and again when talking about his mother.  His wide mouth, his trembling lower lip and his loose hanging arms perfectly capture the sense that he is a lost little boy, turning to alcohol because he never really learnt how to “be a man.”

This is a tear jerker of a play.  It is a striking impression of domestic life gone sour.  William is the self-made ‘Company Man,’ whose own business, drive and success have demolished his personal life and the lives of those he most loves. Precise direction and some fantastic performances make this production well worth seeing.

Company Credits: Director – Adam Barnard. Designer – Sam Dowson. Lighting Designer– William Reynolds.  Assistant Director – Teunkie van der Sluijs.  Fight Director – Philip D’Orleans.  Stage Manager – Stuart Burgess.  Deputy Stage Manager – Sophie Acreman.  Assistant Stage Manager – Becky Fisher.  Production Technicians – Michael ‘Gadget’ Sowby, Hilary Williamson.  Assistant Design – Katy Mills.  Production Photographer – Robert Day.  Rehearsal Photographer – Teunkie van der Sluijs.

Cast Credits: Bruce Alexander – William.  Isla Blair– Jane.  Beatrice Curnew – Cathy.  Nicholas Lumley– Richard.  Jack Sandle – James.

(c) Rebecca Gibson 2010

Reviewed Friday 8th October 2010

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