Review: Late Company (Finborough Theatre)

Jordan Tannahill’s play is about bereaved parents looking for closure from the boy who bullied their son

L-R Alex Lowe (Bill) & David Leopold (Curtis) in Late Company
L-R Alex Lowe (Bill) & David Leopold (Curtis) in Late Company
© Charlie JH Round-Turner

The situation may feel improbable – and it is surely ill-advised: after their gay son's suicide, grieving parents invite round the teenager who bullied him, and his parents, to attempt some kind of "closure" over scallop pasta and white wine. But Jordan Tannahill‘s tightly-wound play hums with convincing characters, charged exchanges and elegantly woven-in arguments about parenting, tolerance, mental health, class, the effect of modern technology… I could go on.

Tannahill may be tackling big themes but, more impressively, this cyberbullying play rarely feels like it’s self-consciously 'tackling big themes': this stuff naturally comes to the surface through dialogue that is at times cringingly comic in its small-talk banality and then, on a sixpence, turns viciously point-scoring.

Written when the Canadian playwright was only 23 and running at only 75 minutes, it is still a small play: the action is all talk, and all the talk takes place in one dining room (consciously tasteful in Zahra Mansouri’s naturalistic design). It could have been expanded, given more time to breathe and develop. But the dialogue is beautifully caught, and revelations are drip-fed with a sure hand. It also has a genuinely powerful ending that seems to tighten round the throat; if nothing else, that will ensure Tannahill (still in his 20s) is a name that sticks in the memory.

The story is well-served by the cast of Michael Yale’s production. Everyone is grasping for someone or something to blame, yet it’s never that simple – and these actors allow us to see their characters as both sinned against and sinning.

Todd Boyce and Lucy Robinson play the upper-class Michael and Debora, the bereaved parents; he’s a conservative politician, both smoothly oily and genuinely keen to pour oil on the troubled waters. But Boyce also effectively conveys how this smiling charisma is but a calm surface over a deep well of grief. Debora is a chic woman who puts on a magnificently cutting social front, but who is clearly ravaged by loss – and desperate to wound others. That she’s an artist who makes sculptures from steel is no coincidence: "steely" is the best adjective for her, and yet Robinson gives us the full blast of her pain too, preventing Debora from becoming too monstrous, even when she rounds cruelly on the teenage Curtis.

David Leopold is marvellous in that role: glowering and monosyllabic, comically undermining the painful social niceties of the grown-ups. But if at first he seems unbelievably unbothered, insisting that the bullies were only trying to be funny, Tannahill actually gives him an arc that is very affecting. Alex Lowe convinces as Curtis’ regular Joe dad who thinks kids who don’t want to get bullied ought not to "flaunt" their gayness, while Lisa Stevenson is remarkable as his wife: her quavering voice and strange grips on first a glass of water, and then several of wine, vividly convey her nervousness at the chasm of taste, politics and world view between these couples, and at the horror of the social situation they’ve put themselves in.

A dinner-party from hell, then, but a show that serves up plenty of food for thought.

Late Company is at the Finborough untill 20 May.