“It’s all a question of perception”
Opening up 2016 downstairs at Hampstead, Andrew Payne’s The Meeting starts off brightly as a sharp office-set comedy where a crucial deal looks set to be torpedoed when one of the key parties has to be escorted from the premises after suffering an emotional breakdown. Denis Lawson’s production has fun with corporate behaviour and its nameless threats (“there’s been murmurs on the 10th floor”) but is perhaps a little less sure-footed when it then tackles sexism in the boardroom.
Cleverly, for all the talk of concepts and options, entry level kits and secondary licensing, we never find out exactly what it is the beleaguered Stratton and youthfully belligerent Cole do. For The Meeting is more about the way they behave – with each other, with Frank from upstairs, with the various unseen women in their lives, and with Ellen, who is stepping in for the indisposed Jack and disrupting the old boys’ network on which they had been relying for an easy time of it.
Payne is good when it comes to showing the power games played in offices and the sexism, both casual and overt, that can permeate such environments, where post-work drinks take place in the nearby gentleman’s establishment rather than the pub. Mark Hadfield’s Stratton, all avuncular bluster, constantly refers to Ellen as Helen; Sam Swainsbury’s cocky Cole, would-be rebellious in hi-tops and t-shirt, treats her with disdain from the start; and Malcolm Sinclair’s wonderfully jocular Frank prowls the space like a big cat, with quiet (and not-so-quiet) authority.
But as the deadline for signing the favourable contract approaches and it becomes increasingly apparent that Rebecca Night’s calmly measured Ellen is no pushover when it comes to checking her colleague’s work, the men start to panic about whether they can get away with it. And so starts a series of manipulations as clause rewrites and amendments are bandied about, meetings interrupted by mysterious happenings on the fourth floor, the upper hand sought by all.
Here, the cut-throat nature of the business world and the tension between being a decent person and a savvy operative is cleverly explored – Lawson teasing interestingly slippery work from all four actors. For me though, the final scene rang false. It is deeply uncomfortable, deliberately so, but it also pushes too far than is necessary, for reasons I can’t go into without spoiling the plot. So, thought-provoking definitely, but also ultimately frustrating despite much good work that has gone into the 89 minutes before.