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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Company Man
Orange Tree Theatre   Autumn 2010

Torben Betts has rewritten Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, set in contemporary England.

Betts is not as great a writer as O'Neill, and so The Company Man is not anywhere near as great a play, but its vision that people are who they are all their lives and can't change even when they want to, and that love does not at all conquer all, is frequently very moving.

A dying woman gathers her somewhat estranged family for a reunion, only to discover that her weak and feckless son is still weak and irresponsible, the daughter who was always somehow ignored has become an identityless and self-sacrificing nonentity, her cold and self-centred husband is still blind to anything but his own ego, and she herself never really lived because she was too busy playing the role of wife and mother.

Meanwhile memories and flashbacks show us how everyone got where they are and the extent to which they always were that way, and how love not only couldn't help but sometimes actively hurt.

Himself raised by a cold and brutal father, the father here became his duplicate, an added level of intellectuality merely giving him another arena in which to be a bully, monopolising every conversation with imperious lectures. The boy who was his mother's darling because she sensed his weakness never had to develop a backbone, and the girl who was judged too strong to need loving became her mother's carer as inevitably as the spinster daughter in an Irish family.

Everyone had a moment, or more than one, in which they might have seen the truth about themselves and altered their fates, and - as in O'Neill - everyone looked into that moment and then went on being who they were.

That's a dark vision and, as I've indicated, it has been expressed much more powerfully elsewhere. But it's a vision worth sharing and Betts does offer some new angles from which to observe it, noting for example that we are now two generations away from those who lived through the Second World War, but that their traumas helped shape their children and now their grandchildren.

Adam Barnard's direction carves three separate spaces out of the Orange Tree's small in-the-round stage, allowing two or three scenes to be played simultaneously without confusion (though I think I spotted a couple of moments when the actors forgot where the invisible doors were supposed to be), and guides his actors to presenting the characters with all their flaws and crimes against each other while still not losing our sympathy.

Isla Blair as mother and Bruce Alexander as father stand out, she by letting us see her character gradually sensing some truths about herself and the others, and he with a character who remains almost endearingly un-self-aware throughout.

The play goes soft and soppy at the very end in a way O'Neill would never have allowed himself, as if Betts needed to reassure us things aren't really as bad as the body of the play implied, and I think it would have been a much stronger play if he had held his nerve.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Company Man - Orange Tree 2010