In 1931, when John Van Druten’s London Wall was first performed, women in the workplace were still a relatively new phenomenon, and an unsettling one at that. “Work’s work,” an old-timer is reported to have said, “but with women it never can be.”
Sadly it seems to have been a salient observation: for these young women, work is a minor distraction from the real job of getting yourself hitched. “What’s going to happen to me if I don’t pull it off with… what’s-his-name?” Blanche (Alix Dunmore) asks plaintively, not concerning herself with her suitor’s identity or their lack of emotional attachment. It may not tick many boxes in an eHarmony profile, but having observed their daily routine of typing, filing and rebuffing predatory males, it’s easy to empathise with their desperation to escape.
This is a wonderfully slick production performed by a very strong ensemble. The pace of Tricia Thorns’ direction reflects the urgency of the women’s call to matrimony and the constant dilemmas they are having to face. Even the scene changes capture the routine nature of their current lives, each piece of paper and rubber stamp slotting into a new home as Alex Marker’s masterful set transforms into different rooms of the lawyers’ offices.
Alix Dunmore shines as Blanche Janus, struggling to maintain dignity and professionalism whilst staring into the abyss of a solitary middle age. The lynchpin character is ingénue Pat Milligan (Maia Alexander), whose naiveté and optimism around men throws the strategic thinking of the others into stark relief. The male characters, too, are a joy to watch, from the sweatily solicitous Hec (Timothy O'Hara) to the unctuous and predatory Brewer (Alex Robertson), clearly demonstrating how elusive the knight in shining armour ideal really is.
The most engaging aspect is that the focus is on the women of the office, surviving in a man’s profession. It’s easy to romanticise the 1930s as an era of waspish waists, hatpins and hairnets; a time when women Didn’t, until they were married, when they Did but didn’t talk about it. There are no such generalisations here. The currency was sex, you “played your cards” as Miss Hooper clinically describes it, and the jackpot was marriage. Gamble rashly, it is clear, and you’ll end up on the shelf. Refreshingly, the piece doesn’t seem to judge. Instead there’s a warning: you can play the game any way you like, but bear in mind that the real enemy isn’t the men trying to take advantage, it’s the loneliness and bitterness that lie in wait if you get it wrong.
- Mel West