Late Company asks difficult questions. Who’s to blame when a young person commits violence – against themselves, and against others? Who control – or patrols – their access to the internet: their parents or school teachers? Could self-regulation – of the internet, violence, of feelings themselves – ever work for creatures as vulnerable and volatile as teenagers?
Late Company asks difficult questions and doesn’t seek to pose any answers either. And that’s ok, for the most part: it’s not about the destination, as they say, but the journey.
The journey starts some time before the play does. Michael Shaun-Hastings and his wife Debora are a successful couple in suburban Toronto. He is a conservative politician, she a more free-willed artist and lecturer. They have a beautiful home and stable finances. They no longer have a son, however. Only child Joel killed himself after repeated acts of bullying, largely around his perceived homosexuality, his ‘weirdness’, and his forceful attempts to be weird.
Some time later, in an attempt to start a healing process, Debora and Michael invite Bill and Tamara – and their son Curtis, the ringleader of the bullying – over for a polite dinner.
Things, understandably, don’t go to plan, and what’s revealed is just another layer of hurt: Joel’s depression, a slew of online videos, and the gulf that grows between parentsa and their children. Of course Joel’s parents, particularly Debora, are consumed by emotion, and don’t believe Curtis to be sincere in his apology. By the end of the short seventy-five minute show, we’re not necessarily any the wiser, but are ready to start some serious discussions around responsibility, regret and depression.
Writer Jordan Tannahill is an award-winning Canadian playwright and filmmaker, described by NOW Magazine as “the future of Canadian theatre”. His work has been presented in theatres, festivals and galleries across Canada and internationally, winning honours such as the Governor General Award for Drama and the Toronto Theatre Critics Awards for Best New Play. He is currently working on a new piece for the National Theatre, after his co-production Draw Me Close, between the National and the National Film Board of Canada, premiered to significant acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Tannahill may be the future of theatre, but he’s also very firmly the present of theatre too. Late Company, despite its Ayckbournian title, is fresh, modern and surprisingly un-try-hard while being so. It competently describes and displays the depths of grief and the odd normality that you try to continue. It shows how we lie to ourselves and to each other. It’s the perfect pressure-cooker length, and Tannahill steers clear of creating cardboard cut-out saints and devils.
Michael is uncomfortable with how effete and affected his son was, Debora has seemingly given up her liberalism for a world of comfortable consumerism. Curtis is neither a glowering beast nor racked with guilt. Tamara and Bill are perhaps a little more run of the mill but remain completely believable. Bill is the type of guy who’d’ve been fine with a gay son, as long as he sat him down and told him to toughen up and pansy less.
Neither couples are perfect parents, and it’s truly moving to see Debora and Michael lament the loss of their only child. To them, he was perfect, despite his weirdness, queerness, or struggle with depression. We feel this. We mourn their loss too.
If anything, the piece feels a little too cruel against Joel’s parents, and too forgiving to Curtis. Bill’s remonstrations are never fully rebutted, and by having Curtis re-enter, tear-streaked, at the last moment, does Tannahill let him – the violent straight white male – off the hook? He, unlike the Shaun-Hastings, will not have to grieve in public. He has returned on his own terms, not had the rug snatched from underneath him.
There are a few inconsistencies in the writing – where Tannahill’s own quips or politics bite through the veneer of the character – and a deathly allergy to shellfish fails the rule of Chekhov’s Gun – but otherwise the play is both highly enjoyable and highly emotional.
All five actors put in strong performances, supported by refreshingly convincing Canadian accents. Lucy Robinson deals commendably with the sizeable asks of the role of a grieving mother, and Todd Bryce is a stoic, well-carved counterpoint. Alex Lowe is the hypermasculine uncle of our childhoods/nightmares, and Lisa Stevenson plays Tamara’s naivety and simplicity with admirable truth. David Leopold as Curtis is both distracted and highly-engaged, distraught yet unfeeling.
Michael Yale’s direction is natural and fluid, although there are a few missed beats and lagged cues that could be tightened up. It is a bold but worthwhile choice that the actors use the full size of the space, standing sometimes with their backs to the audience. Zahra Mansouri’s set is thoroughly convincing, which is no mean feat in a space as intimate as Trafalgar 2. Chris Prosho’s sound design comes to life in the dying moments of the play, and Nic Farman’s lighting is unobtrusive.
Late Company will make you think. It will make you question. It might not make you change your mind, but it will make you empathise and connect and reflect on your life as you lead it outside the confines of those four black walls. It’s ultimately, and simply, a piece of theatre that moves its audience, making it – and Tannahill – both very present forces to be reckoned with.