Jordan Tannahill, the writer of Late Company, does a really clever thing: he carefully and reverently constructs a character for us with all the trimmings – the peccadilloes, the emotions, the highs, the lows – and the secrets – but it’s a character we never see. Yes, Joel Shaun-Hastings, teenage son of Politician Michael and artist Debora, is absent from a family dinner with guests because he is deceased: death by suicide, a victim of vicious social media victimisation by school mates and possibly, a victim of parents who could not feel his pain because they didn’t know anything about it.
This is a powerful piece of writing. The guests are Bill and Tamara Dermot with son Curtis, the principal perpetrator of much of the vilification of Joel, and the dinner, a year after Joel’s death, is a kind of snake oil supper, a ritual memorial repast to heal the wounds, mend the fences, build the bridges – all the clichéd metaphors that can be thought of to bring together two families divided by a beloved son’s suicide. Closure is the signature dish on the menu: it’s what they all want. No such luck.
The two husbands in what turns out to be the sacrificial slaughter of the scapegoat known as Curtis are both of the mind that “this is not going to work”. Curtis’s mum, Tamara, whilst heavily protective of her son, is willing to give it a go for some peace of mind, some of that “closure” for nightmare wracked Curtis. But it’s Debora who’s the driver of this runaway truck that is out of control and about to mow down all in its path: she’s out there on that precipitous ledge of anger and grief and closure to her means someone has got to pay and it’s Curtis, not unnaturally, who is in the sights of her sugar-coated dum-dum bullets.
Lucy Robinson as Debora cuts us to the bone with her taut, uncompromising and at times caustic dialogue. She doesn’t take any prisoners and she is forensic in her search for the weak links in the frail armour that the Dermot family has attempted to pull around them in the face of vitriolic attacks in the press and example-type punishments by the school. Robinson’s skill is to play the victim whilst manoeuvering the shock troops into position for the surgical strike, unflinchingly releasing the cobra bite on the most vulnerable of opponents.
She’s nasty: but we can’t help desperately searching for some sympathy for her. It’s a consummate performance, one that drives the drama of the piece and fuels the unrelenting momentum of a wretched story that has no winners, only losers. Her one soft moment, as she views a YouTube film by her son that she had not realised existed, is tempered by the steel in her eyes that says, yes, Curtis may be today’s soft target: but they’ll be another one tomorrow, and the next day…
Smooth talking, urbane, compromise-monkey Michael, Debora’s husband, Joel’s father, is played with exquisite timing and laconic languor by Todd Boyce. The guy’s a politician. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Michael states that his son wasn’t gay because he never said that he was and is not here to speak for himself. Cleverly intertwined in the script by writer Tannahill is the suggestion that Michael was perhaps happy to glean the sympathy vote after Joel’s death. Boyce handles this really well and shows us that the politician can switch on the charm whenever the situation demands but can also revert to the aloof-and-distant setting as required. Was that the father that Joel knew and possibly did not love? – enquires Curtis’s dad, Bill.
Bill (Alex Lowe) smoulders and seethes and is way out of his comfort zone when his black and white view of the world is challenged and put under the microscope. The play is set in Toronto but I was surprised at just how similar the political scene, as described, is so akin to our own – I hadn’t heard of “Red Tory” until Corbyn came on the scene but this play was written in 2012. With our own election in the process of cranking up, Bill would, I think, be classed as Watford Man – happy to embrace a technologically changing world at the same time as clinging rigidly to his dyed-in- the-wool ideas of class and gender and sexuality. He, demonstrably, did not have much time for Joel and the teen’s ultra-camp antics and sees Curtis as more sinned against than sinning. But he’s way out of his depth and can only cling to the slowly sinking life-raft of the old world order. Lowe gets this to a tee and gets it across in a kind of soft-soap belligerence that briefly bubbles over when he – or Curtis – is
put under extreme pressure. It’s a performance par excellence and provides the simmering undercurrent of dissent that is a strangely soothing counterpoint to Robinson’s full-on attack-bitch.
Lisa Stevenson as Tamara, is all things to all women. She wants this attempted rapprochement to work and is too naive to understand that there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening. She’s been seduced by some pleasant email correspondence between herself and Debora and believes that only good can come out of the dinner party. How wrong can you be. Stevenson creates the dichotomy of Tamara’s character with precision and skill, showing compassion and empathy and tolerance and affection before flaring into snarling defence in the face of the vitriol with which Deborah bludgeons her son and her family. Curtis may be the fall guy but Tamara is Miss Gullibility. Stevenson paces this carefully and acts as a well-intentioned shock-absorber for the off-road havoc that Debora is inflicting on all before her.
Short straw in this come-dine-with-us mayhem is drawn by David Leopold as Curtis. Like any slightly bolshy teenager he mumbles and grumbles his way through the embarrassment maze that he is being forced to negotiate. He doesn’t say much at all at first but it’s great credit to Leopold that he maintains a brooding presence in the proceedings. His “off-the-ball” acting – glances, uneasy shiftings, dubious reactions – whilst the adults debate and argue – are priceless and we see in his portrayal the gradual realisation that the flamboyant and annoyingly provocative Joel was actually living – existing – in a hermetically sealed environment at home with a regularly absent father and a decidedly unhinged artist mother. Her art adorns the walls of the immaculately manicured house – strange, metallic, framed reliefs and unfathomable sculptures: there’s a brilliant moment from Leopold as a vacuous piece of smooth lead is pointed out as a notable piece and he gives it a surreptitious glance of innocent incredulity that seems to sum up his view of the household, with the mental angst-fuelled rider “WTF am I doing here?”
So the performances are right on the money throughout the show but it takes a special kind of direction to establish the permeating feel of intimate intimidation. Director Michael Yale’s first great decision in pursuing this aim is to reconfigure the flexible bijou acting area at the Finborough into a corner space with two sides of audience seating allowing the dinner table to slot neatly into the inverse apex. This provides the intimacy, this allows the audience to have the impression that they are in that house, in that dining room, seated at that dinner table. Combined with Designer Zahra Mansouri’s effective set (and excellent costumes) Yale’s clear, precise and sympathetic handling of Tannahill’s script ensures that here there is a piece of theatre in its purest form – direct, engaging, intelligent and relevant to our rapidly changing world.
Late Company is a play that does not compromise: Tannahill and the Company, Stage Traffic, with its scintillating cast, perspicacious director and astute designers are determined that the audience is not going to duck the
Review by Peter Yates
by Jordan Tannahill
When you wake up in a cold sweat at night and you think someone is watching you, well it’s me. I’m watching you. And that cold sweat on your body, those are my tears…”
One year after the suicide of their teenage son, Debora and Michael sit down to dinner with their son’s bully and his parents.
Closure is on the menu, but accusations are the main course as good intentions are gradually stripped away to reveal layers of parental, sexual, and political hypocrisy – at a dinner party where grief is the loudest guest.
Written with sensitivity and humour, Late Company explores restorative justice, cyber bullying, and is both a timely and timeless meditation on a parent’s struggle to comprehend the monstrous and unknown in their child.
Directed by Michael Yale
Designed by Zahra Mansouri
Lighting by Nic Farman
Sound by Christopher Prosho
Presented by Stage Traffic Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
Venue: Finborough Theatre
118 Finborough Road