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London Wall

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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John Van Druten's forgotten 1931 play about female office workers in a City law firm has arrived trailing rave reviews from the Finborough, but Tricia Thorns' production proves a mixed blessing on greater exposure at the St James.

The writing is matter-of-fact, though the narrative winds up absorbingly in the third act, and the acting is as bumpy and unpredictable as some of the wigs.

But the play itself is as significant a dramatic document of a bygone age of office life as the Finborough's revelatory revival of J B Priestley's Cornelius last year.

And it certainly taps into the current obsession with sexual harassment in the work place, when Maia Alexander's innocent Pat Milligan (a sweet but over-desultory performance) is assaulted after-hours by Alex Robertson's predatory solicitor Mr Brewer, who resembles a seedy version of Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Pat is one of three short-hand typists and secretaries having a hard time on derisory wages: pool-leader Blanche Janus (Alix Dunmore) is giving up on the man she's dated for seven years, and fears the onset of lonely old age; Emily Bowker's Irma Hooper is also losing patience, but with a married man; and Pat herself is ironically impervious to the devoted attention of Hammond (Timothy O'Hara) in a shipping office downstairs who is learning French and trying to write.

There's a breeze of the boulevard in Mia Austen's cheeky Miss Bufton, wiggling her posterior in a manner to incense the defenders of office etiquette, whose rules are sonorously expounded by David Whitworth as the head of the business in the third act - he also administers peremptory punishment where appropriate - and a vivid irruption by Marty Cruickshank as Miss Willesden from Brighton, a pesky client who is always tinkering with her will.

The daily routines of tedious secretarial work punctured with lunch in Lyon's tea shops or the Express Dairy, not to mention the shuffling of paper work and the palaver of the old plug-in telephone reception, all conjure a vanished era. And designer Alex Marker makes the best of the scene changes with clever reversible panels and a variety of chairs that are slickly handled in the choreography of the employees.


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