Q: How many consultants does it take to change a light bulb? A: What’s your budget?
That’s more of less the jist of Neil Fleming’s petite new satire, which is underscored by a sneer of disdain for those that bark ‘advice’ from the sidelines. Consultancy, Fleming would have us believe, is a parasitic profession, charging extortionate sums for nothing that the client doesn’t already possess. James Ross (Pip Donaghy), the messiah of management in question, reduces it thus: ‘What do you want? How far are you prepared to go to get it?’
Ross offers little more than a sounding board to Hugo Shackleton (James Wilby), Chief Executive of a medical technology firm threatened by a Korean firm’s accelerated developments. As Hugo prepares to face his board of governors, Ross prods and goads him into the hardened, cutthroat businessman that he aspires to be. Questions are machine-gunned and the answers are inevitably common sense. ‘We make money,’ Hugo eventually realises, ‘because people will pay anything to escape the fear of death’.
The irony, of course, is that consultancy hinges on the same principle. It thrives as bankruptcy looms and vultures circle overhead. Often, however, you feel that Fleming has too much control over his subject. The failing company seems to trade in X-rays, for example, to prise open the possibility of ‘seeing through’ the consultant.
Those touches of over-neatness overspill into a character-driven plot. Ross is so psychologically-astute that any planned manipulation falls out perfectly. His use of reverse-psychology and carrot-stick methodologies are beyond exemplary. With such slickness, the danger is that Pip Donaghy veers into Bond-villain territory, a problem exacerbated by Ross’s being wheelchair-bound and dressed in black.
Fleming scores his hits palpably, but, dramatically, The Consultant is fairly one-note. It exists solely to defame and undermine, to point out the emperor’s nakedness. His interest lies with the central, masculine battle of Ross and Shackleton, a relationship that verges on Frankenstein and Monster and relies on the seductiveness of urgent business-speak, the Mad Men/West Wing appeal, as it were. The play’s women – Hugo’s wife Claire (Sian Webber) and junior consultant Nicola (Helen Millar) – exist as mere narrative offshoots. They are, respectively, mother-figure and mistress, always serving the needs of another.
None of this is fatal. It’s just bland; flat-footed rather than nuanced. Fleming is so determined to grind the axe that he over-elevates his material and advisor becomes devil on the shoulder of the good man turned by worldly goods. Though its satire undoubtedly reflects it, The Consultant itself never feels rooted in reality.
(As a postscript, that’s a consistent problem at Theatre 503. Even with a beautifully crisp design from Agnes Treplin, which conjures corporate opulence on a shoestring and handles a number of location and time shifts efficiently, the space prevents any sense of a world beyond. The box stage is so tightly constrained that, without careful attention, it has a tendency to strangle plays.)