The synopsis of John Van Druten’s 1931 play London Wall (filmed twice for television, but rarely seen since) calls to mind a British Mad Men. It’s telling that Matthew Weiner’s series begins on new secretary Peggy Olson’s first day, where, under the guidance of worldly office manager Joan, she quickly discovers that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The idealism mixed with wryness also offers a sense of what might have come about if Jane Austen had written a play about female office workers in the 1930s – marriage is the ultimate aim of all the women in the play, the alternative being a life of shorthand typing on £3 a week and volunteering for overtime because there’s nothing else to do.
In Tricia Thorns’s sparkling, witty and truthful production, the material doesn’t feel nearly as dated as could have been, with a number of juicy roles for women. In a solicitors’ firm in the City, the four secretaries kill time by typing letters and taking dictation whilst waiting to get married. The harassed Miss Hooper (Emily Bowker) waits for her lover’s divorce to come through; girl-about-town Miss Bufton (Cara Theobold) hedges her bets by going out with as many men as possible, whilst 35-year-old fiancée-of-seven-years Miss Janus becomes ever more agitated, desperate to marry a man she isn’t in love with in order to be a wife rather than an employee. Meanwhile, the slippery office manager Mr Brewer is more interested in eyeing up the pretty new girl Pat Milligan than in doing any work. Miss Janus, an advocate of the Charlotte Lucas approach of grabbing your man sooner rather than later, schemes to marry Pat off as quickly as possible to her not-quite-boyfriend Hec, a shipping clerk with literary ambitions and no idea of how to take friendship to the next level.
Set in a period in which having women in the workplace was still something of a novelty, Van Druten emphasises the lack of respect paid to ‘women’s work’: male colleagues think nothing of asking the secretaries to “run off” two pages of typing when they’re supposed to be on their lunch break; indulgence is more likely to be shown to errand boy Birkenshaw (Jake Davies) when it comes to leaving on time, while the female members of staff tear around the office clutching their notepads at the beck and call of a buzzer.
The beautifully cast production sensitively observes the bonds and rivalries forged in offices, a place where people often spend more time than they do at home. Alix Dunmore is very affecting as Miss Janus, part disappointed spinster, part fairy godmother, and Maia Alexander makes a charming ingénue. The two men in the love triangle are both convincing: Alex Robertson makes a hateful lothario oozing oily charm from every pore and Timothy O’Hara’s earnest almost-suitor is slightly too honourable but altogether a better bet. There are also enjoyable turns from veteran performers David Whitworth as the surprisingly sympathetic boss, and Marty Cruickshank as dotty client Miss Willesden (a one-woman show about Margaret Rutherford surely beckons).
Alex Marker’s oak-panelled set is meticulously observed, immediately drawing the audience into the world of the play. Nostalgic period details such as lunches at Lyons Corner Houses and tea served in teacups are sprinkled through the staging and even the scene changes – often annoying in this space – are well handled, contributing to the cycle of everyday hustle and bustle.
There’s something very reassuring about a play in which the deserving (mostly) get their happy endings whilst the villains get their comeuppance, and the wonderfully orchestrated final scene is a triumph of multitasking with more swinging doors than in a French farce. Not a great play perhaps (one could say the same about Van Druten’s best known work I Am a Camera), but one that’s tremendously enjoyable and ripe for revival as women continue to negotiate their way in the working world.
London Wall is playing at Finborough Theatre until 23 February 2013. For more information and tickets, see http://finboroughtheatre.co.uk