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Office politics take centre stage at Richmond



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 Richmond Theatre.

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 Typist? Secretary/PA?

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 credible.

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 characters.

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 ploys.

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 redundant.

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 busy.

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.

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