L&S America Online   Subscribe
Home Lighting Sound AmericaIndustry NewsCovid-19 UpdatesLSA DirectoryEventsContacts

-Today's News

-Last 7 Days

-Business News + COVID-19 Updates and Support

-People News

-Product News

-Theatre in Review

-Subscribe to News

-Subscribe to LSA Mag

-News Archive

-Media Kit

-A Theatre Project Book

-PLASA Events

Theatre in Review: London Wall (Mint Theatre Company)

Elise Kibler and Stephen Plunkett. Photoi: Richard Termine

The Mint, known for digging up forgotten works, has outdone itself with London Wall, a title even hard-core theatre fans will find unfamiliar. This isn't surprising; the author, John Van Druten, a reliable mid-20th-century craftsman (The Voice of the Turtle; I Am a Camera; and Bell, Book and Candle, among others) himself dismissed this 1931 West End flop as being overly thin and trivial. He never risked Broadway with it, fearing that its depiction of daily life in a London law office wouldn't interest American audiences.

Having seen Davis McCallum's beautifully modulated production, I beg to differ. London Wall is an amusing and touching comedy-drama that offers the pleasures -- fine construction, subtly detailed characterizations, and trenchant dialogue -- that were the hallmarks of Broadway and the West End in the golden era of the well-made play. In addition, it offers a surprising insight into the problems facing women who, for the first time, were making a living outside the home in vast numbers. In its particulars, it is a charming antique, and in its theme, it is still a work with something to say to contemporary audiences; you can't do much better than that.

Van Druten reportedly took an office job to study life in the nine-to-five grind, and the effort shows in his finely detailed depiction of life in the offices of Walker, Windermere & Co., a London legal firm where the male lawyers preside over an all-female secretarial staff. (The one exception is Birkenshaw, a cheeky little rogue-in-training who makes deliveries, handles the mail, and mans the telephone system, a task that allows him to listen in on the staff's personal calls.) The action centers on Mr. Brewer, the office wolf, whose behavior today would get him slapped with a sexual harassment suit in no time flat. (Upon learning that one secretary's given name is Irma, he says, "I see Irma as something dark and sinuous, with flashing eyes, and secret papers tucked inside the bosom of her dress.") A little of this goes a long way with most of them, especially the briskly efficient Miss Janus, who notes with dismay that Brewer has Pat, the youngest and least experienced member of the staff, in his sights. "I've seen him watching her with that nasty, leering 'how much for this little lot' look of his," she notes with primly contained rage. Much of the action of London Wall follows the path of this unconventional triangle, as Brewer works his oily charm on Pat while Miss Janus does her best to throw cold water on Brewer's predatory ways.

Van Druten observes office politics with a keen eye, deftly throwing a couple of curveballs into the third act that radically recalibrate two characters' fortunes and set the stage for a satisfying tears-and-laughter wrap-up. But what really makes the play engaging to modern audiences is his deep understanding of his female characters, women in their 20s and 30s who toil for 30 shillings a week, living at home or in drab bed-sitting rooms, getting their diversion from the movies and the local lending library, and looking for a little romance to escape their workaday lives. Marriage is the only reliable way out for them, and yet all too often, men prove to be married, philanderers, or otherwise emotionally unavailable. (Miss Janus, for example, has been "engaged" for seven years to a man who is becoming increasingly distant.) Time is not on their side, and often their only bargaining chip is their virtue; once that is spent -- usually in an attempt to land a husband -- they find themselves trapped in a buyer's market, so to speak.

Under McCallum's unerring direction, an exceptionally fine and technically assured cast brings Van Druten's gallery of office workers to vivid life. This is the sort of play where small gestures -- an engagement discreetly brandished in hard-won triumph, a newspaper quickly folded to forestall a revelation of tragedy -- really matter, and everyone underplays with skill. Julia Coffey rightfully dominates the proceedings as Miss Janus, who, at 35, realizes how few options she has left, leaving her grimly determined that Pat will not make the same mistakes. Whether eyeing Brewer with the chilly air of a biologist who has happened on a new and unappealing form of animal life, frantically imploring Pat to think before she acts, or taking a private moment to dissolve into tears over an irrevocably lost love, she provides the play with its center of gravity. Elise Kibler is winning as Pat, her head turned by Brewer, who comes bearing gifts of theatre tickets and dinners and restaurants. As Brewer, Stephen Plunkett, an Arrow Collar ad come to life, is a perfect cut-rate Don Juan, luxuriating in the effect his impish, bad-boy manner has on the fairer sex.

There are also fine contributions from Matthew Gumley as Birkenshaw, smirking in delight in a pack of love letters from one of the firm's divorce cases; Alex Trow as Miss Hooper, who is determined to hold onto her married lover at all costs; Laurie Kennedy as a batty, elderly client of the firm who immerses herself in Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce-style lawsuits; Christopher Sears as the endearingly awkward young man, a would-be writer, who realizes nearly too late that he loves Pat; Katie Gibson as the office coquette ("Flirtation's her game, and she knows all the rules; she makes them, and she sees that they're kept, too," says Miss Janus, with a kind of admiration.); and Jonathan Hogan, underplaying delightfully as the firm's senior partner, who is nonplussed at having to deal with a stream of staff resignations following an especially upsetting turn of events. "The only way to run an office is for every member to make himself, or herself, as nearly as possible an automaton, or a machine," he says, but there's little chance of that in London Wall.

Adding an extra touch of authenticity is Marion Williams' set, a finely detailed piece of naturalism complete with a vintage telephone station and a proscenium covered with file cabinets; it can be quickly reconfigured to represent a common room or the office belonging to Hogan's character. Nicole Pearce's lighting provides additional assistance in suggesting each location. Martha Hally's largely successful costumes include some evocative examples of sensible office frocks, well-tailored suits for the men, and more character-specific creations for Pat's young swain and Kennedy's intrusive old lady. Jane Shaw's sound design includes a tasty playlist of period pop tunes performed by big bands of the era.

London Wall may have looked like a minor comedy in 1931, but behind its deceptively casual fa├žade is a remarkably clear-eyed assessment of what it must have been like to be a "career girl" at the time, blessed with freedoms denied previous generations but starved for romance and still bound by middle-class notions that leave her walking a tightrope in terms of her future prospects. It's a cocktail of charm, spiked with just enough bitters to give it some bite. It proves to be an irresistible combination. -- David Barbour

(25 February 2014)

E-mail this story to a friendE-mail this story to a friend

LSA Goes Digital - Check It Out!

  Follow us on Twitter  Follow us on Facebook