Classical: Redundancy and reality
Friday 10 April 1998
Donmar Warehouse, London
"I can't even lose my job properly," snorts the ousted fiftysomething father in The . The imaginative world of Joe Penhall, the 30-year- old new associate writer at the Donmar Warehouse, tends towards disintegration. He's charted the experiences of a schizophrenic on the mad streets of Shepherd's Bush (Some Voices) and of a sarf London hard nut spiralling down into the inferno after his wife's suicide (Pale Horse). Now he directs his attention, and his flair for creating a tricky atmosphere, to the emotional devastation caused by redundancy.
The seems to be self-consciously constructed as a Nineties' riposte to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. In the place of Willy Loman, the demoted workhorse still pathetically clinging to the American Dream, we have Miles Anderson's cussed, inwardly collapsing Charles, a journo on a London local rag who goes into paranoid denial when he fails to "meet the criteria" of new management and is "let go".
Like Willy, Charles has two sons whose divergent responses to him help complicate an audience's attitude. Returning with his lover from a stint working for Microsoft in Singapore, Neil Stuke's edgily laid-back Robbie has also lost his job, following the toppling of the tiger economies. But he can't lose face by admitting this to his father (whose playful rabbit punches have an edge of real competition) and he's the type who prefers to think about pussy rather than politics. To his hard-pressed mother (beautifully played by Barbara Flynn), this represents a generational shift: it's as if the young "instinctively grasp the pointlessness of it all". Of course, their detached knowingness is, in part, a defensive bluff, as is shown by the pain of the second son, Mike (Andrew Tiernan) who has distanced himself only in the desperate sense of becoming a scavenging, hard-drinking vagrant.
Penhall evidently wants us to have powerfully mixed feelings about the father. He's a nightmare - polishing his shoes to go to a job that no longer exists; endangering a financial settlement by prowling round the office like some mad conspiracy-theorist with a dictaphone strapped to his belly. On the other hand, his unfashionable belief that the world does "owe people a living" seems preferable to the new-wave apathy of his sons.
Dominic Cooke's production overdoes the doomy sound of the wind (does nobody ever lose their job in calm, sunny weather?) and the subjective lighting effects. It adds to the impression, created also by some of the writing, that all this was fated to happen, that Charles's redundancy is less the result of social forces than a poetic psychological justice: a life built on little fantasies ending in the extreme fantasy of denial. The one disaster area, both in the dialogue and the acting, is the supposedly sharp, analytical medic girlfriend of Robbie. Using words such as "valediction" - you guess she means "validation" - and generally flexing a pretty off- key vocabulary ("Pushing pieces of fruit into my pussy? That's your epitome?"), she could scarcely be bettered if she'd been meant as a vicious parody of an intellectual.
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