Late Company, Trafalgar Studios, London ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

If you were a couple whose teenage son had died, perhaps the last thing you would do is to invite one of the classmates that had bullied him to suicide and his parents for a conciliatory meal. Perhaps they do restorative justice differently in Canada.

Jordan Tannahill’s taut and moving play, transferring into the Trafalgar Studios 2 from the Finborough, wins the argument for the unlikely premise early on, as mothers Lucy Robinson and Lisa Stevenson exchange well-meaning platitudes about the cleansing effect of their meeting. Like their audience, these characters do not really believe this will work; but for us, the craft comes with its failure and the onslaught of accusations and recriminations that follow.

The Toronto setting is never in doubt, mostly due to the five-member cast’s insistence that the Canadian vowel shift must be more pronounced than the average Ontarian would ever recognise. And yet the issues that the two families’ confrontations surface are global: the effect of homophobic bullying on teen suicide rates, especially among young men; the differing ideas of the responsibility of parents to understand, confront or even punish their child’s deviation from accepted gender norms; whether a history of depression could be a contributory factor to suicide, rather than a symptom of the torment one is going through.

These are heavy themes, but Tannahill’s script keeps them lightly dancing en pointe throughout. Nobody is presented as clear-cut hero, no-one is a villain. Robinson’s artist mother gave her son Joel the freedom to be who he wanted to be, but there is a suggestion that her laissez faire attitude led her to miss the signs that he was struggling.

Each of the other parents are similarly complex, from Todd Boyce’s politician watched his colleagues’ “It Gets Better” promotional video but did not watch his late son’s YouTube channels to Stevenson’s blue-collar mother, a character whose complexities come more from interpretation than script.

But it is the slow burn of David Leopold’s Curtis, who starts out as a monosyllabic, reluctant participant and who blossoms into the most sensitive and compassionate of the dinner party guests, who holds the evening together. Reminders that school bullies are the same children who spent years in the same class together, often as friends, filter in with a deft simplicity. Among the wilder raised voices of the parents, his stillness, emotion, and turmoil resonate far longer than this piece’s 75-minute running time.

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