BWW Review: THE FIRM, Hampstead Theatre
For all its bravado and comedy, Roy Williams' The Firm is a potent piece about masculinity. Set in an attractive south London pub, four friends have gathered to celebrate the release of their friend Shaun, who has spent the past 12 years in prison. But as the evening continues, an unexpected guest and copious amounts of alcohol prompt revelations about all of those gathered.
The titular 'Firm' was a group of friends, including Gus (Ray Fearon), Trent (George Eggay), Leslie (Jay Simpson) and Selwyn (Clarence Smith). Now all around their fifties, these men lead wildly different lives: Gus is a successful businessman (and known criminal to the authorities), Selwyn works in a supermarket, Trent drives a white van, and Leslie claims universal credit.
With Champagne and beers on ice, the four men are ready to welcome back their old friend and glamorise the old days - until Fraser (Makir Ahmed) enters with Selwyn, proposing to rob a supermarket for easy money and bringing Gus's past into the safe space of his pub.
Though the first 15 minutes of The Firm make for uneasy viewing, due to the swearing and blokeish behaviour, the piece soon hits its stride as the friends gather. At one hour and 30 minutes, with no interval, Williams' play (returning to Hampstead following a sold-out run in 2017) is perfectly timed to allow details to slowly emerge in conversation, developing each individual character.
The hardened shell each man puts forward slowly crumbles as the night continues. Trent is mocked, and Leslie ridiculed for having a white girlfriend who makes him herbal tea and takes him swimming. Even Gus, the alpha male, in the face of the young Fraser struggles as we learn about his past, with an unexpected reference to West Side Story proving that musicals really can help any situation.
There is little doubt watching The Firm that these were all great friends once. From Fearon's swagger to Simpson's defiance, each actor pitches it at the right level - not only individually, but within the wider cast. As Fraser, Ahmed laces his attempt to become part of this world of men with a delicate fear.
The other benefit of not having an interval is that the heady atmosphere prompted by drinking large amounts of alcohol is allowed to quite naturally build - first to a loud crescendo, only to be followed by the inevitable slump of intoxication. Denis Lawson's direction, however, does not allow the more sombre (and sober) second half to suffer from this diminution: conversations between two characters standing inches apart keep the audience attentive right until the end.
In its portrayal of ageing, masculinity and friendship, The Firm easily makes for compelling viewing, and the few points of critique - some bumpy line deliveries and occasional moments of confusion in the script - pale by comparison to the direction and performances on stage.
I've always struggled with Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, but I'd happily spend a little longer in Gus's bar waiting for Shaun to arrive. Who knows what else Williams would have to tell us about these troubled and damaged men.
Photo credit: Robert Day