Gay playwright John van Druten is now almost completely forgotten except for ‘I am a Camera’, his adaptation of Isherwood’s ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, which was also the basis of the musical ‘Cabaret’. Nevertheless he was an extremely competent journeyman of the 30s and 40s, with a string of hits both sides of the Atlantic.

It’s often the case with neglected playwrights that there’s good reason to neglect them. However, on the strength of ‘London Wall’, van Druten still has something to offer contemporary audiences beyond period charm. Forget stylish Agatha Christie or Downton, ‘London Wall’ breathes the same stifling air as Priestley’s ‘Angel Pavement’ or the world of Patrick Hamilton. The elephant in the corner is World War One, which decimated Britain’s eligible bachelordom. Women are left with the bleak alternatives of Marriage – Marriage to anyone they can get their hands on – or withered spinsterhood in gloomy bedsits on three pounds a week for the rest of their days.

‘London Wall’ is a proto-feminist play. Its main characters are four girls in the typing pool of a stuffy solicitor’s office. Miss Milligan, the naïve newcomer who is easy prey to the office wolf, Brewer; Miss Hooper, playing along with a married man; Miss Bufton, the ‘common’ good-time girl; and, most tellingly, Miss Janus, 35, almost on the shelf, dragging out a long engagement to a Dutchman, and jilted in the course of the play. All are defined by their relationships to men and marriage.

So far, so conventional, and Druten doesn’t entirely escape the charge that he deals in types rather than characters. Nevertheless, he invests them with a great warmth and sympathy, especially in their dealings with each other – a kind of embryonic sisterhood. He also nails the underlying desperation of the situation, particularly for Miss Janus.: “I’ll make him marry me. I don’t care if he wants to or not. I’ve got to get married. What else am I to do? Stick here and go on living at home looking after father?... And then he’ll die and then what is there? Rooms, or a boarding house, or a club for women who can’t get married.” In Alix Dunmore’s blistering performance, Miss Janus is chewing on razor blades.

The future for the unmarried woman is personified in Miss Willesden, the only solicitor’s client we see; a half-crazy old woman filling her time with changing her will and bringing impossible law suits: “Whenever I see a pretty young girl I always think, ‘What will she be when she’s old?’” Marty Cruickshank brings a touching wisdom and gravitas to the old bat.

The men in their lives have less to play with in the script, and lack inner life. Jake Davies, as the young office clerk, Birkinshaw, is lumbered with a dreadful kind of cheery Hollywood cockney typical of the class-conscious theatre of the time. Only Timothy O’Hara as Pat Milligan’s tongue-tied would-be beau touches comedy and pathos with genuine emotion.

Despite the seriousness of the themes, van Druten is a deft operator with a strong sense of what the commercial traffic of his theatre will bear. Much of the play is taken up with social comedy, especially the comedy of the office routine. Van Druten is spot on with the rituals of the post book, the kitty for the office biscuits, the etiquette of the lunch break, the dictation and the switchboard. The production supports this with a brilliant, massively-detailed set by Alex Marker.

In the 1930s theatre-going was largely the activity of just such women as appear onstage. They would have identified massively with both characters and plot. However, van Druten as their faithful servant is careful not to challenge them too far, and reassuringly provides happy endings for the main characters, albeit contrived and rather improbable. This eagerness to please prevents his elevation to the pantheon of really important writers of his time. However, this revival makes the best possible case for him.

Reviews by Peter Scott-Presland

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The Blurb

Presented by the acclaimed Two's Company, returning to the Finborough Theatre following their sell-out 2005 production of the Great War classic Red Night.

London Wall is a wryly comic look at the life of women office workers in the 1930s. In a solicitor’s office in the City, Brewer, the office manager, sees pretty new 19-year-old typist Pat as fair game. As some of the more experienced secretaries try to warn her, and others leave her to her fate, her steady boyfriend – an idealistic young writer – desperately tries to win her back. Meanwhile, cynical Miss Janus' romantic life seems to be over as she is jilted by her lover at the desperate age of 35...

First performed in the West End in 1931 starring a young John Mills, filmed in 1932, televised in 1963, but unseen since then, London Wall is a surprisingly modern look at men's continuing inability to see women as professional equals and colleagues.

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