Alan Bennett is usually good value for money but this mix ‘n match of two of his lesser-known one-acters might lead the audience to feel short changed.
The billed stars of Office Suite, Lesley Joseph and Edward Hardwicke appear in the hors d'oeuvres but are not seen after the interval. This is a shame because in their wonderfully amusing 45 minute piece, A Visit from Miss Protheroe, they give two of the best performances you are likely to see on stage this year. The main piece, Green Forms, is longer (at least 20 minutes too long), more extravagantly set and is no-where near as good.
Set in the pre-internet age of the 1970’s, Miss Protheroe is a gem of a play. Hardwicke’s Arthur Dodsworth, has recently retired from thirty years paper chasing at Warburton’s, a company in which the intricacies of bureaucratic form filling appear have reached an apex. A widower, and happy both in his retirement, and the knowledge of what he has achieved within the company, he is visited by Joseph’s Miss Protheroe, an acid tongued spinster who was his work colleague. As office gossip turns to more profound revelations, Dodsworth’s day, and his happy retirement gradually fall to pieces. This is not high drama but a sweet and sour tale, articulated in Bennett’s characteristic style. Lesley Joseph has never been better and is a revelation, so far removed from her TV persona. In essence this is a Talking Head for two.
Green Forms, contemporaneously set, concerns the issue of work insecurity as two status obsessed clerks in a departmental backwater at Warburton’s try to track down the obsequious Dorothy Binns, whose arrival, like Godot, might make or break their future prospects. Essentially this is also a two-hander, despite an amusing comic turn from Edmund Kente’s union obsessed ‘ancillary worker’, and Debra Penny and Mary Cunningham play it with gusto. But the writing itself exhausts the patience of the audience. There are many amusing sideswipes at form filling and pencil pushing but too little tension between the characters themselves.
These two plays, cleverly set by Richard Foxton and under Lawrence Till’s expert direction, explore the relationship of work to real life, and how it sometimes fills an aching void in those unlucky enough to regard it as their entire world. Bennett manages to capture precisely the rhythm and nuance of ordinary speech while infusing it with wit and wisdom.
For me, however, a weaker second half diminished the evening. I would, upon reflection, have been happy to have left in the interval savouring the joy of the performance of a lifetime from Lesley Joseph.
- Stephen Gilchrist (reviewed at Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre)