According to Hydrocracker, in Labour’s last full year in power, the party laid out a cool £1.8 billion of tax payers cash on consultants. Whilst we’re all used to hearing terrible tales of NHS consultancy gone wrong, this is still a staggering truth. In his new play The Consultant, Neil Fleming aims to put this expensive profession under the microscope; just exactly what do these jargon-makers and “Self Help” movers-and-shakers give you for your pound?
At the end of The Consultant we are, somewhat ironically, no nearer to a clear answer. In being unable to avoid cliché, and confounding issues instead of clarifying them, it seems Fleming has fallen into the very trap of the people he is supposed to be exposing.
‘What do you want and what are you prepared to do to get it?’ a marvellously villainous Pip Donaghy spits at us, eyes blazing. Donaghy plays James Brown, the eponymous consultant and Machiavellian mastermind behind a plan to change and thereby help Hugo Shackleton, a delightful James Wilby. Through a series of seductions from the lithe and focused Nicola (a valiant Helen Millar) and a mixture of alternatively messianic and banal explosions from Brown, Shackleton is moulded into the CEO his company needs to fight off the evil Koreans who are pricing him out of the market (and whom every time they are mentioned, do not fail to bring to mind shady characters in double breasted pin stripped suits). Meanwhile, clad in angelic white (Brown is permanently in black, even in linens) Shackleton’s long suffering but insufferably independent wife, Claire opposes Brown with virulent, if slightly confusing, force. Let the battle for Hugo’s soul commence.
Wilby is desperately under-stretched but still has traces of his glorious Merchant Ivory past. In designer Agnes Treplin’s clear Perspex floored, minimalist environment he is every inch the dinosaur, a charming gentleman from a bygone age. With each new power play that Fleming throws into the mix, he seems increasingly caged but also a prouder sort of beast, a mammoth trapped in the ice by Donaghy’s sabre tooth tiger. Millar flashes with frustrated ambition and exchanges tongue lashings with Sian Webber’s cold Claire. There undoubtedly something very primal about Fleming’s kill or be killed text and Geoff Church keeps the momentum going with snappy blocking and some elegantly choreographed scene changes.
But if The Consultant is a whirlwind of testosterone and animal aggression, there is no central communication of subtler human wants and drives. This story is full of mixed messages and confusing modus operandi. Brown blusters around, trying to make Shackleton a ‘bastard’ for his own good, but there is no real understanding or exploration of this ruthless business man’s unusual act of kindness. Shackleton’s eventual epiphany does not feel genuinely realised and his wife’s intense dislike of Brown is equally ungrounded.
In these austerity ridden times there is much to be said for analysis on this parasitical profession, but Fleming has been unable to focus his microscope closely enough to produce any real insight. Just what is he trying to say with this play? I’m afraid to say I still don’t know.