OFFICE SUITE
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 24 September, 1996

Much of Alan Bennett's work migrates easily between stage and television: the Talking Heads monologues and Single Spies plays have met with equal success in each medium. This stage presentation of two TV plays from 1978 makes the transition with similar ease, for the understated, absurd banalities of Bennett's work chime true in whatever form they may be expressed.

Green Forms is his perspective upon the comedy of killing time, as two dilatory office workers find their cushy number jeopardised by the imminent arrival of a sinister corporate efficiency apparatchik. The mysterious Dorothy Binns, who never appears, is a lineal descendant of Godot; the two dogsbodies who pop in occasionally are the office-ancillary equivalent of Pozzo and Lucky; the Beckett parallel extends even to co-protagonist Doris (Paola Dionisotti) having problems with her footwear. But this remains Bennett territory, with its departmental feuds over equipment requisitions and casual remarks such as "I suppose, being from the sixth floor, he lifted the seat."

Dionisotti has Doris's character down pat: in contrast to a home life chained, as it were, to her mother's artificial hip (has Bennett ever written a character with the full complement of parents?), she queens it with quiet assurance over her office colleague Doreen Susan Wooldridge, a little too animated in her trivial chattering.

Wooldridge is more in control in the second piece, A Visit From Miss Prothero. Her Miss P is secure behind her severe spectacles and crocheted hat, doling out tedious office chit-chat to the recently retired Mr Dodsworth (Timothy Bateson, a Bennett natural), but saving her rocket until the end: office computerisation has swept away what was to be his lasting monument, a logical flow system for processing paperwork. So deftly is Dodsworth transformed from a likeable curmudgeon into a figure of pity that a number of "Aah"s can be heard from the audience.

Both plays gently make the point that "efficiency" must be measured in terms of human satisfaction rather than by the number-crunching ogres of the Newport Pagnell office. Staged today, they evince a bittersweet nostalgia for an age when computers were exotic beasts and trades unions could be amusing instead of simply risible, when bureaucracy at least had a human face and human foibles. Jennie Darnell's production lets this conviction permeate through to us at its own pace, not so much wagging a finger as tentatively gesturing with a Rich Tea biscuit.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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