I like those inter war year plays. Priestley dramas, Coward comedies, Ben Travers farces, even Agatha Christie potboilers if done well. All have charm, elegance, innocence. Terence Rattigan’s classic murder play, Cause Celebre, appealed as much for its period setting as it did for the real life drama. And Ronald Mackenzie’s The Maitlands remains a neglected masterpiece of the age. I yearn for a revival by somebody. John Van Druten’s social comedy London Wall may have slipped under my wavering radar but its 1930’s office setting ticked an awful lot of my boxes. St Albans Company of Ten diligently tantalised and, thankfully, gave the play a Sunday matinee airing. As I told my long suffering, I had to go. Besides, apart from a small foray at Sidmouth my unwelcome oar hasn’t stuck into anything for a while.
I am glad I did. The Abbey Studio setting, against the backdrop of an impressive brick wall, ideally created the dreary and fusty atmosphere of long gone legal office life. Not a lot happens on stage, we get two deaths off it, but the play’s sheer ordinariness was part of its charm. The company drew you in both for strong narrative and rich characterisation and for the occasional glimpse of hectic activity. Usually at the end of the day when telephone bells summoned sundry personnel and unfinished post stretched to some trivial, but vital, deadline. Office life was ever thus.
And like all office life, then and now in some ways, it has its distinct pecking order. At the bottom of the hen house is Miss Milligan (Cate Brooks). This impoverished ingénue was beautifully played by Miss Brooks and all her confusions, professional and private, were internalised with consummate skill. She took her cue from the older and sadder Miss Janus, an excellent Helen Miller signalling a destination of frustrated old age. Husbands were clearly a precious commodity and you felt that this was one secretary already eyeing up the shelf. No such uncharitable thoughts entered one’s mind in regard to colleagues Miss Hooper (Katy Robinson) and Miss Bufton (Helen Goaley). The one flashed a ring and a walk with style and triumph, and the other, one supposes, flashed everything else. Both turned in rich and well crafted distinct characterisations and Helen Goaley particularly impressed for playing to the hilt, as my old mother would have said, a girl no better than she ought to be.
But good quality productions need a cast that bat long and, generally speaking, this lot did. I personally would have welcomed a little more projection from Tom McKeown’s otherwise sensitive and gentle Hec Hammond and a little bit more variety in playing from Daniel Robert Leigh’s supercilious office rake but these are tiny points. Mr McKeown’s thwarted beau of Miss Miiligan displayed beautiful stillness when surrounded by end of day office chaos, and Mr Leigh had the thankless task of playing the only unlikeable character in Van Druten’s play. And believe me he was not just unlikeable, he was odious. One of those people who think they are God’s gift to the earth and most of the rest of us would shed few tears if he was under it.
Joe Wackett was an engaging junior, swaggering with panache, and added much to the overall office ambience and Peter Bryans a commanding Mr Walker, the big legal boss with clear and concise ideas on personal and professional conduct. Not a man to be messed with. Except possibly by the daft and dotty elderly Miss Willesden. Providing a sub plot of sorts the beautifully costumed Angela Stone was simply magnificent. A performance so joyful you wanted to wrap it up and take it home. But then much of this production was. Opening scene music was a bit muted but in this London Wall it was a rare false note. Director Tina Swain had a good cast and she had drilled them with style and realism. A little old fashioned theatrical gem on a Sunday afternoon. Roy Hall