Finborough Theatre Spring 2017; Trafalgar Studios Autumn 2017
A strong, moving and convincing drama about what we know and how we know it, Late Company is a very welcome introduction to Jordan Tannahill, a playwright who very much deserves to be better known outside his native Canada.
A teenage boy has killed himself, largely as a result of bullying by other kids, and some time later the boy's parents are meeting with one of the chief bullies and his parents.
(Yes, the situation bears some resemblance to Yasmina Reza's God Of Carnage, but Tannahill's play is more serious and in many ways better.)
All five people are looking for some sort of closure, but it quickly becomes apparent that each wants a different sort of closure, and less quickly that the goals are not only mutually exclusive but impossible to achieve in any case.
One of the playwright's insights is that the differences are not merely that the offending boy and his family hope for forgiveness and reconciliation while the grieving parents want more confession and even vengeance (though those elements are there).
Within each family, and sometimes within a single character, there are conflicting needs that cannot all be satisfied.
Even more complicating and revelatory, in the course of making one point or expressing one passion, each character is in danger of opening up a seemingly different emotionally-charged issue.
Fault lines appear in both marriages and in the relationships between both sets of parents and their sons. The two men may be startled to find themselves sharing an opinion or reaction that briefly makes them allies against their wives, while the women are repeatedly blocked in their attempts to argue by a moment of shared emotional understanding.
Facts about both boys, particularly the dead one, are revealed that redefine both families, forcing us to reconsider our judgements of them.
Ultimately the dead boy is something of a McGuffin (Alfred Hitchcock's term for the thing that gets a plot going but is thereafter not really of importance in itself). Who the boy was and why he died proves less significant and dramatically engrossing than what is revealed about the two families – and, even more centrally, how it is revealed.
This is a play about how we learn, how we sometimes resist learning, and how we sometimes almost accidentally learn, much more than it is about what we learn.
By the end we know more about the dead boy but less about why he died. We and the five onstage characters themselves know more about themselves, and watching them learn has been the really fascinating dramatic experience.
In writing a play seemingly about one set of questions but ultimately setting them aside in the discovery of more interesting psychological insights, Jordan Tannahill has created a work of great subtlety and power.
And by recognising that the core of the play lies in what the characters reveal when they think they're talking about something else – and, even more significantly, in how the truths slip out – director Michael Yale shows himself a particularly astute reader and interpreter.
Director Yale also deserves credit for guiding his excellent cast to the level of sensitive playing that allows the audience to discover the play's psychological insights without having them overly telegraphed or spoon-fed.
The ensemble playing is so of-a-piece that it is impossible to single out anyone for special praise. The two women, Lucy Robinson as the dead boy's mother and Lisa Stevenson as the offender's, have the more emotionally expressive roles.
But the three men, Todd Boyce as the grieving father, Alex Lowe as the other and David Leopold as the boy, communicate and illuminate as much through relative underplaying.
The Finborough has such a long record of punching far above its weight in the presentation of high-quality work that we are always in danger of taking its excellence for granted.
But once again we are indebted to this tiny fringe venue for introducing us to an important new writer and for providing a home for an engrossing evening's theatre.
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Review - Late Company - Finborough Theatre 2017