Following a highly acclaimed, sell-out run at the Finborough Theatre, the Two’s Company production of London Wall, by John Van Druten, transfers to the St. James Theatre next week. AYT’s Becky Brewis called in on Maia Alexander and Alix Dunmore in rehearsals. They talk about money, men and marriage…
Tell me a bit about the play
Dunmore: London Wall is essentially about what it was like to be a woman in the work place in the late 20s/early 30s, and how rubbish it was, frankly. All these women were dashing about, taking dictation, typing things, while the men were taking really long lunches and just sending them all over the place. If you weren’t born into money or a flirt (like Miss Bufton in the play) then your option was to get married as soon as possible in order to get out of work, because work was a complete drudge: you couldn’t earn enough money to buy your own property or anything like that.
My character is a senior secretary. She’s been there for 10 years and she’s earning three pounds a week which is the equivalent today of £150. In terms of spending power it was a bit more back then but still, given that she was there for 10 years, it was really not enough – especially given that she was basically running the joint.
What kind of relationship do your characters have?
Alexander: Miss Janus is like my guardian angel really, in the office. Both when I am there and when I’m not there she’s trying to steer my life so that it doesn’t replicate her life.
This production has been brilliantly received by critics and audiences, but how was the play received in 1931?
Dunmore: I think it went down really well. It was a bit of a staple – one of those plays that was always done for about five years but then disappeared off the radar. It’s interesting because it’s quite rare to find a play that’s got so many strong female characters in it and that it was written by a man, in 1931, is quite extraordinary.
Alexander: It’s interesting that people evidently wanted to come along in 1931 and watch a play about women essentially being abused in the workplace, not just sexually abused but abused in terms of their rights and their pay.
Do you think London Wall still speaks to audiences in the same way it would have done originally, or is it enjoyed now more as a period piece?
Dunmore: A lot of people coming to see it have said “it’s terrible that we haven’t moved on as much as we should have” and “I’m listening to these women from 1931 speak and I have the same issues.” Yes, some bits are very dated but others are still so relevant to today.
Alexander: It’s funny because people were very split. A lot of people said exactly that, that it’s awful, but then a lot of people laugh at some of Miss Janus’s lines, like when she says “I’m 35!” as if to imply that she’s completely at the end of the road. People laugh at that kind of thing but I think a lot of the – dare I say it – the men in the audience tended to feel it was dated, whereas the women felt like it was very current and similar to their own situation, and their frustrations.
How did you go about preparing for these parts?
Alexander: When I first read the play, my character just came across on the page as almost unbelievably naïve. I just couldn’t understand how somebody could be this naïve. So really it was a matter of grounding her into what she really wanted and why she really wanted it. She’s an orphan, so I think a lot of what she wants comes from a real need for guidance, which is something that she gets from Miss Janus, and she just looks to this big authority figures as sort of parental figures.
Dunmore: Yeah. When we first rehearsed this we were all given assignments, to look at different aspects of the times, like film and theatre, makeup and hair, and how people lived. I looked into the money aspect and decided to immerse myself in the literature of the period, because I read a lot, so I read lots of Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh. And I found Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (which I’d never read before, to my shame) just – well if Miss Janus had had the money Virginia Woolf had, she’d have written that book, because Miss Janus is a fiercely intelligent person trapped in circumstances that are completely unfair, and Virginia Woolf sees all that, and questions why no one else is saying anything like this, and why women in universities have these terrible conditions, while the men are having steak for breakfast.
But these characters are written so well that it becomes easy. You just have to look at the text really to understand that person. It’s not like a Noël Coward play where you’ve got a lot of women that are cyphers for men, these are definitely women, so maybe Van Druton just had lots of strong women friends.
Do you think it’s important for plays like this to be revived – to be performing old plays?
Alexander: Oh absolutely, and the success of the Finborough production speaks for itself. It is shocking to people in a way that, if it had been a play written about 1931 it wouldn’t be. But because it was written then, it shows how these issues were glaringly obvious even at the time.
Dunmore: The Orange Tree theatre pretty much constantly does plays of around this period and revives things that haven’t been done for a long time, and they get packed out, so there is a huge audience for it. And me personally as an actor, it’s definitely my period, ’30s and ’40s, I absolutely love it. I founded a theatre company called the Fitzrovia Radio Hour, where we are pretending we are a 1940s radio show, and make all the sound effects with props and stuff like that so yes, I can barely do a modern play now!
Do you think this could have been differently interpreted? Is this production quite true to how the play would originally have been performed?
Alexander: I think we have tried to make it as modern a thing as possible. I mean, Tricia [Thorns] didn’t want anyone doing old accents.
Dunmore: Yes, no really heightened RP, like Brief Encounter. We do it with a nod to the period but not so we alienate the audience.
Alexander: My character’s relationship with the office cad is very much like a kind of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, who only has to touch Vivien Lee and she turns into wilted spinach. So in terms of my interpretation of the character, it was really important to give her backbone, real backbone. She doesn’t wilt. None of them wilt. I think they would have wanted to see that back in the ’30s whereas I think that if any of us did that today we would lose the audience’s respect and interest.
Has being in London Wall affected how you feel about marriage?
Dunmore: Pah, marriage! Are you getting married dear? Because I’m not. No, we’ve both split up with our boyfriends since the show. It ends relationships this play. I never wanted to get married, and still don’t.
Alexander: Yeah, and I have been thinking a lot recently that I don’t.
Dunmore: We’re all the single ladies, all the single ladies.
Alexander: I don’t think it’s right for people to make promises they can’t keep.
Alexander: But unfortunately I don’t think the message of the play is, you don’t need to get married.
Dunmore: Well, I don’t know. It might be slightly…
London Wall plays at St. James Theatre from 7th May until 1 June. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk/events/london-wall/.
Image credit: Graham Cowley