Office Suite comprises two of Alan Bennett’s early television plays: A Visit from Miss Prothero and Green Forms. Both plays originally starred Patricia Routledge and date from 1978. They offer us a slice of office life from that suddenly fashionable decade: the former examines how a recently retired manager’s life is turned upside down by the revelation that his beloved working practices are being overturned; the latter looks at the fear felt by minor admin workers faced with new management techniques and the onset of computerisation.
But beyond the instant nostalgia, it’s hard to understand why these plays are being dusted off. They certainly would never be classed as Bennett’s masterpieces and, although it’s not even 30 years ago, working practices of that time bear little relation to the way we work now. Younger people will find the jargon and office processes almost as archaic as Shakespearean language - we now have a completely different style of management-speak with which to baffle outsiders.
So, this revival is already struggling under a handicap of looking like a museum piece but that’s not the worst of it. The biggest problem of all is Routledge herself. She’s a great comic actress but reprising these parts strikes me as a huge mistake. It might not be gallant to say it, but she’s far too old now for both parts, particularly in the Miss Prothero piece.
The better of the two playlets is Green Forms, containing a much better mix of the personal and the political. Some familiar Bennett themes are here: the comic potential of place names (it’s always easy to get a laugh by mentioning Newport Pagnell) and familiar objects ( almost inevitably there’s a joke around coffee creams) ; the decline of England (“we can’t even manufacture a decent truss any more” wails Routledge’s Doreen); and the deadening nature of bureaucracy. Older administrative and managerial workers will relish the ease with which the staff reel off the names of forms, as eagerly as schoolboys reciting the latest test team.
Director Edward Kemp does his best to flag life into these two museum pieces, and he’s helped by two excellent performances from Edward Petherbridge, as the manager whose retirement is ruined and as a manual worker being wooed by a keen union official. Janet Dale also shines as the senior administrator Doris, the foil to Routledge’s Doreen.
Chichester has lined up an exciting Festival season, but this revival seems like a lazy – if lucrative - option to kick things off. While “sold out” signs attest to the popularity of the Bennett/Routledge combination, neither of them is well served by Office Suite . There are some things about the Seventies that are best forgotten.
- Maxwell Cooter (reviewed at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre)