Review by David Munro
MY FAITH in the theatre, which was badly shaken last week, was
triumphantly restored, by Alan Bennett's Office Suite at
The evening consists of two one-act playlets, which are, to all
intents and purposes, two-handed developments of his brilliant
Talking Head series.
In the first, A Visit From Miss Prothero, Edward Hardwicke
plays Mr Dodsworth, a widower, four months into his retirement
from being the head of his department and blissfully happy making
pottery ashtrays and attending Cordon Bleu cookery classes.
In a brilliant coup de theatre, we first see him in what appears
to be a poky little confining room, which as the play starts,
expands into a cosy living room decorated for Christmas.
His comfortable evening is interrupted by an unexpected call
from Miss Prothero, a spinster of uncertain age, brilliantly delineated
by Leslie Joseph, at her most unglamorous.
It is unclear exactly what post she holds at the firm - Clerk
However, she is one of those women found in most offices, dedicated
to the firm and utterly disapproving of all her co-workers; disapproval
she delights in, making abundantly clear to Mr Dodsworth.
By the end of her visit, she has managed to puncture his balloon
of contentment and leaves him tearful and alone in a set which
has reverted to its original constricted aspect.
Both Mr Hardwicke and Miss Joseph were able, in the course of
the short time allotted to them, to create believable and all
too recognisable characters.
I must declare an interest here: I was, for a short time, responsible
for personnel in a medium-sized office and I knew, and had to
cope with, the Mr Dodsworths and Miss Protheros, so, to me, they
were painfully familiar. As, indeed, were the characters portrayed
in the second playlet, with which I deal later.
Mr Dodsworth is the steady hard worker, who never makes the top
grade, but is the mainstay of the firm and, as such, is worth
his weight in gold.
Blessed with a modicum of intelligence, he never quite grasps
what the future holds for him, or his firm, but is quite happy
making the best of what he does and doing it well.
It is therefore a shock to a man of his mentality to learn that
a lifetime's dedication to the firm can be obliterated by the
introduction of new technology, and systems he spent years putting
in place can be replaced by a piece of computer software.
The Miss Protheros of this world, on the other hand, resent that
their dedication to the office is noticed, but never recognised.
They do not realise that their narrow-minded dedication reveals
in them a similar narrow-minded outlook on life, which alienates
both fellow workers and employees and prevents them from getting
the advancement they feel they deserve.
She, therefore, delights in destroying Mr Dosworth's retirement
euphoria by describing how his successor has made a clean sweep
of all his systems and that there is nothing left whereby he can
be remembered: a lifetime's work and dedication obliterated by
the pressure of a key on a computer keyboard.
Leslie Joseph portrays the small-minded, priggish, self-satisfied
spinster to a T.
At the same time, she invests her lines and actions with just
the right inflections, which make them humourous and yet still
While a lot of this is due to Alan Bennett's incisive and well-observed
dialogue, the ultimate realisation of the character, with its
weaknesses and strengths, is due to Miss Joseph's own skills.
Similarly, Edward Hardwicke brings out the innate goodness and
simplicity of his character, and makes one appreciate how easily
he could be irredeemably hurt when the realisation strikes him
that, despite all he had done for the firm, and the selfless work
he has put in, he is now yesterday's news.
With all the underlying poignancy of the writing, there is still
a great deal of humour in the situation, particularly in the opening
scenes when it soon becomes apparent that he finds her a boring
reminder of his past, and she clearly disapproves of his way of
life and rejection of what she considers are its proper values.
The second piece, Green Forms, is pure comedy, even farce,
depicting, as it does, two clerk typist whose way of work in the
office is to avoid it and pass the buck whenever possible.
Their morning is occasionally interrupted by two delivery men,
one of whom, Boswell (Dermot Canavan) says nothing whilst he is
being lectured by Mr Lomax (Edmund Kente) on the merits, or demerits,
of the two unions operating in the firm.
Both women suddenly realise that their jobs may be in danger
and the punchline of the evening is when their nemesis turns out
to be the advent of WORK.
Again, Alan Bennett has drawn two distinguishable and believable
Doreen, played by Debra Penny, married and only interested in
passing the time until she can go home to her husband, and Doris,
Mary Cunningham, a spinster, whose life is dominated by a semi-invalid
mother and who asserts the authority given her by being one grade
senior to Doreen by taking the initiative in their work avoidance
Again, both are all too recognisable types and their attitude
to files and where they should go must have struck a responsive
chord in many female members of last night's audience, as amusing
lines and situations passed without the laughter they deserved.
This was no fault of Misses Penny and Cunningham, whom I found
extremely good and rib-achingly funny in their respective portrayals
which, to me at least, were all too true to life.
Admittedly, one could not empathise with their ultimate come-appance
in the way you could that of Edward Hardwicke's Mr Donaldson,
but then Mr Bennett did not mean you to.
They were two well-observed women in a situation to be found
in all too many offices before computers created them justifiably
As such, Green Forms made an amusing and welcome coda
to the stark theme of A Visit from Miss Prothero.
The director, Lawrence Till, also played a major part in the
success of the evening. His direction was clear, firm and unfussy,
yet with touches that showed how a top-flight director can ornament
and enhance his actors' performances.
I have already mentioned the atmospheric set of Miss Prothero:
there was an equally appropriate austere, yet cluttered, set for
the ladies in Green Forms, which was the perfect mise-en-scene
in which to spend the day doing nothing and yet appearing to be
These were the inspiration of Richard Foxton and one wonders
which hapless firm fired his imagination.
The programme is very reticent as to the provenance of Office
Suite. As Miss Joseph is booked for this year's pantomime
at Richmond, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, it would
not seem to be intended for the West End, which I feel is a pity,
because performances of the calibre I saw last night deserve the
widest and fullest audience.
If you do not catch it at Richmond, or wherever else it may be
going before Christmas, you will miss a very good and well balanced
evening in the theatre and that would be a pity.
Unlike last week, this week I have a lot to say, so don't let
me feel I have wasted my time.
Go to Richmond while you can still see what theatre is all about
- good entertainment.
By the way, I might mention I did see Miss Joseph as the Queen
in Snow White at Brighton last year, and, if she is as
half as good in this year's production as she was then, this is
a pantomime you should not miss.
Office Suite by Alan Bennett, Directed by. Lawrence Till,
Designed by Richard Foxton, Lighting by Nick Beadle, Sound by
Gregory Clarke. WITH: Leslie Joseph, Edward Hardwicke, Debra Penny,
Mary Cunningham, Edmund Kente, Dermot Canavan. Produced by Theatre
Royal Productions, Bath and presented at Richmond Theatre, The
Little Green, Richmond, Surrey. Tickets 020 8940 0088.