Writer: John Van Druten
Director: Davis McCallum
Reviewer: Claudia Borruso
John Van Druten is not a name instantly familiar to American audiences even though he was an American citizen for the last 13 years of his life and had more success here than in London, where his career began. London Wall is one of his earlier plays and shows no foreshadow of any pull across the Atlantic, being set as it is in a very quaint, traditional English law firm on London Wall. The offices of Walker, Windermere and Co. were based on Van Druten’s time working as a clerk in a welsh solicitor’s office which he described as “sordid and routine”. In London Wall they move to the heart of a bustling City of London at the start of the 1930’s and for three days, over three weeks, they are anything but “routine”.
The plot of this romantic drama revolves around the four female typists at the firm. We discover their very various approaches to life, to love and to their futures and we travel with them as they explore choices which will shape who they become. Standing out amongst this sublimely talented group is Julia Coffey who plays Miss Janus. Miss Janus is the firm’s senior secretary and older than all her female colleagues and Coffey portrays her wisdom and cynicism by skilful use rhythm and gesture in her speech. Her presence on stage is engaging and these unexpected speech changes keep your ear drawn to every word she says. This is particularly notable as she is surrounded by a full cast of talent. Stephen Plunkett, who plays the office cad and villain of the piece, pulls of such hypnotising charisma that one can fully believe Mr. Brewer’s reputation for devious seduction.
Davis McCallum directs expertly and manages to seamlessly integrate his characters and the marvellous set by designer Marion Williams. No doubt Van Druten, who was praised at the original premier for “hyper-realistic depiction of office life”, would be proud of the rich attention to detail in evidence all through. Not only is the set beautiful, it is functional and historically accurate; the same is true of the costumes (Martha Hally) the accents (Amy Stoller) and the props (Joshua Yocom). The props, especially, have been meticulously researched by Stoller as dramaturge to be used authentically in real time giving the audience a visual history lesson to accompany the entertaining dialogue.
It’s hard to believe that this production is the American premiere of London Wall, given the success of other Van Druten works on both American coasts. It will not be the last revival of his texts: already Transport Group have announced I Remember Mama, his play of 1944, in March. Van Druten is a character-focused writer and so it is unsurprising that he should be popular with actors and theatre groups alike. For this reason, audience members looking for something deeper for their ticket price will be disappointed; Van Druten himself said “I have never been a man for messages”.
London Wall will not leave you pondering life, neither in 1931 nor present-day; but it will show you an engrossing bevy of girls struggling, chatting, laughing and crying with fully realistic, deftly constructed characterisations, wit, insight and, above all, good old English charm.
Runs until 30th March