Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 21 July, 2011

The Increasingly Surreal Office Drama is becoming a recognisable sub-genre. White-collar workers of some description or other, or of none, seem at first to be continuing the daily grind, but little by little the extremes of the outside world or their fantasies and fears begin to irrupt into that bland environment, until by the end of, say, 90 minutes’ playing time the space is as unrecognisable as the characters, if they are even still present.
Ed Harris’s first play to receive a major London production falls squarely within this constituency. Marie, Only Joe and Elvis begin by monotonously processing carers’ timesheets, engaging in abrasive banter with one another and enduring their boss Honey who manages to be at once patronising and a martinet. The chatter gradually becomes infested with bizarre and slightly grotesque stories of a Philip Ridleyan flavour. As the workload increases, especially for Marie who begins to stay on almost overnight, events themselves become similarly outré. An office cleaner who doesn’t clean and converses entirely in singsong gibberish confides in Marie about (we infer) her imminent wedding; Elvis (whose nickname is due to his habit of grunting, “Uh-hurr-huh”) woos her with a Presleyesque number to which the others sing in backing vocals “Administratin’… administratin’…”; Honey’s nervous tic increases to the point where she resembles the late Leonard Rossiter in full spate in the sitcom Rising Damp; matters build to both an apotheosis and an inferno of sorts, accompanied by the original Hungarian version of “Gloomy Sunday”.
Harris and director Steve Marmion pack a lot into an hour and a half, and the result is never less than entertaining and intriguing. I am unsure, however, whether there is anything more to it, at least anything more than a proof that Honey’s command to “Leave your emotions, your problems and your X, Y and Z at home” is impossible to obey, a point which is surely too obvious to need demonstrating. Robyn Addison’s Marie is the axis of normality around which the assorted weirdness turns, and yet whose memories and desires seem to inform much of it. Simon Kunz is not afraid to make himself comprehensively unlikeable as Only Joe, until the pathos at the bottom of his character is revealed. And Harris shows that he merits this higher-profile exposure and is a writer worth watching.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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