Nancy Groves Theatergoer Reporter
6 Nov 2010
"Four years, one month, 16 days." This, the length of time since wayward son Richard last visited the family home at the heart of Torben Betts' new play at the Orange Tree Theatre. We know this because his father William, the company man of the title, reminds him. Repeatedly. But Richard is back now, ostensibly to see his wheelchair bound mother Jane before she succumbs entirely to the muscular dystrophy eating away at her body. Also visiting her this sunny summer day is the family's old neighbour James, while supervising them all is Cathy, the spinster sister who has put her own life on hold while she cares for her mum.
"All the people that ever loved me ... and that I ever loved," says Jane, desperate to make things right. But this is not a happy home, nor was it ever one, despite its outward trappings of self-made wealth. As we might expect from Betts, this is a painful portrait of the dysfunction that so often lies beneath the veneer of middle-class life, casting the generational hangups and hangovers of the post-war generation into heavy relief.
By showing up flaws in even his sympathetic characters, Betts leaves the blame game up to us, helped by five actors prepared to leave vanity at the door. Bruce Alexander's William is a boorish (and boring) bully and Jack Sandle's petulance as big-kid Richard makes him equally hard to pity. Nicholas Lumley's James and Beatrice Curnew's Cathy are kinder but both reveal the limited appeal of a martyr. Isla Blair, meanwhile, is heartbreaking as Jane, whose portrayal both in good health and bad never once veers into melodrama.
Director Adam Barnard sometimes struggles with the changes in focus and there are moments when Betts' script risks cliche. But by the time the strains of Bach's Prelude in C Major begin to play, I am not the only audience member struggling to hold it together. Two more distressing hours of theatre I have rarely seen. But it's a travesty not one national newspaper reviewed this show. The Orange Tree is often criticised for concentrating on forgotten classics. Here is a new play by an award-winning writer already neglected. The run is now over and it will take a brave director to revive it, still braver actors to put in performances even half as powerful as those of the Orange Tree cast.