How relevant do you want your theatre to be? This 1979 play by French dramatist Michel Vinaver recounts economic collapse, scaremongering in the cosmetics industry, the dangers of sunbathing, and a popular princess talking on television about her imminent death from skin cancer.
Despite all of that, and a sterling production by Sam Walters with a fine cast of no fewer than 20 actors on the tiny Orange Tree stage in various shades of grey costume, the play seems automatic and heartless.
Vinaver is 82 and still working; his latest play has just opened at the Comedie Francaise in Paris. Factors Unforeseen, or A la renverse, dates from the year he resigned a job with Gillette in Annecy, and contains a lifetime’s knowledge of how trade unions, management and advertising departments all work in a climate of global capitalism.
The company is called Bronzex, and their suntan lotion “Tantastic” (for an all-over tan) is replaced by “Heavenly Body” once public concern gathers momentum: the workforce is cut from 800 to 300, shares plummet, beaches become deserted and the financial director is posted to a subsidiary in Rio manufacturing frozen baby foods.
The business collapses, the workers take over the means of production and the whole sorry process starts all over again as they relaunch with a return to producing the simple ointments and unguents of the original small family firm. Vinaver suggests that capitalism has a habit of renewing itself, whatever the consequences of politics or a recession.
It’s hard not to admire the wit and the piquancy of all this – and first-time author Catherine Crimp (daughter of playwright Martin) has supplied a sharp and tangy text. But it’s equally hard to get very excited about so diagrammatic and mechanical an exercise, despite the excellence of a cast at once over-disciplined and under-stretched.
They include Rebecca Egan as the fading royal, Christopher Naylor as her supine interlocutor, Sarah Lam and Amy Neilson Smith as chatty factory workers, David Antrobus, Jemma Churchill and Tam Williams as managers, and Paul Gilmore and Howard Saddler as senior staff. Lisa Stevenson probably has the best deal as an angry trade unionist who makes a difference above the din of despair.
- Michael Coveney