Office-based plays are relatively few and far between particularly those from the 1930s, so the revival of John Van Druten’s London Wall at the Tower Theatre is particularly interesting, not least for its focus on the female staff of a busy London law firm who struggle to be seen as equals by their male colleagues who treat them either as secretaries or a prizes to be won. Essentially a romantic melodrama, Van Druten’s play explores a core dilemma for women at different ages in this era and the pressure to find a husband or accept their lot – and a fairly static wage – at this imperfect office with little hope of a career.
Van Druten has a not particularly inspiring tale to tell, offering a stark choice for his female characters whose lives are essentially mapped out for them whichever path they choose – wife and mother or tragic spinster. London Wall roughly compares the positions of 19-year-old Pat Milligan and 35-year-old Blanche Janus who discover they have far more in common then they realise. Initially, Van Druten situationally pits these characters against one another, creating a comparison that their workmates and an elderly client help to reinforce.
Pat is warned repeatedly not to end up like Miss Janus and to use all her ‘skills’ to grab a man while she can, even if she doesn’t love him, all the better to have a comfortable, settled life. Beauty and opportunity fade, she is told – and how little that particular social message has changed in the last 90 years – as does the first flush of love, so better to make the most of it while she has time on her side. Blanche, by contrast, is almost at the tipping point, soon to be trapped in this office role if she is unable to convert her 7-year relationship with a UK-based Dutchman into marriage.
London Wall is structured around a series of long scenes taking place across several weeks in the office and within each one Van Druten stages a number of duologues as characters come and go. These are set in the buzzing General Office where the usually segregated workforce can mingle openly, which has significant plot consequences, and the office of Mr Walker, the first half of Walker, Windemere and Co. (the latter partner is never seen). Van Druten builds tension and scenario through these interactions as opportunities for the women to speak alone and in depth are mixed with loaded male-female encounters and occasionally a full cast scene whose role is to intrude into the private and personal conversations as well as acting as tension relief. The writer has skillfully layered these budding office dramas across his play as the lives, experiences and future of his characters – both primary and secondary – are determined by the 2.5 hours we spend at this London Wall office.
Directed by Stephen Brasher, this Tower Theatre production has mastered all of the complexities that Van Druten has built into this drama and finds almost all of its subtext. Brasher also controls the changing pace very nicely, particularly when long conversations give way to faster-paced comings and goings as the office closes down for the evening. And there is relatively little sag in a tightly controlled piece that finds its feet pretty quickly once the preliminary character introductions are out of the way to create investment in the fate of these women and the fluctuating possibilities that the business of the play generates.
Act One is two long scenes taking place a few days or weeks apart, while Act Two has three scenes covering a decisive 24-hour period in the office. Dramatically, Van Druten places the most significant encounter at the end of Scene Three which may have been a better place for a cliffhanger interval given that there are consequences for everyone in the rest of the play as the characters return for their reckoning the following day, but the Tower Theatre’s decision to place the interval after Scene Two is equally valid in order to keep a time balance between the two parts of the show.
There are lots of characters in London Wall, each of whom is certainly distinct in this production but they all have a very clear purpose, chosen to reflect on the central romantic and career trajectories of Pat and Blanche. Van Druten has, in effect, created a sliding scale of female experience and marital predicaments for the audience to consider and, in what feels like a very contemporary attitude, the writer starts to question whether the desirability of marriage should be the only satisfactory option for a women, especially if she has independent means or the capacity to make a living.
Therefore, secondary characters Miss Bufton and Miss Hooper offer alternative or more extreme versions of the lifestyles of the other women with Bufton presented as closest to Pat in terms of situation, a little older but embracing the opportunity to date as many men as possible, a good time girl who enjoys the theatre and owns plenty of evening wear that she can lend to her colleagues. Hooper, by contrast, is more akin to Blanche, dating an equally unavailable man for a number of years in the hope that their relationship will become official before long, in this case requiring a divorce. In this sense, Van Druten creates a spectrum of female characters all of whom are looking for different degrees of commitment from their future. Whether Miss Bufton and Miss Hooper are ideals or warnings, the writer leaves to the audience to decide.
Although some of these characters are lightly drawn, even plot contrivances, Van Druten is a convincing writer of women whose circumstances and limited options he creates well, and which is one of the strongest elements of this production. This approach makes it possible to draw parallels between London Wall and other works that look at the restrictions place on working women in this era as well as exploring the nature of work itself such as Sophie Tredwell’s Machinal which was brilliantly revived at the Almeida Theatre in 2018 which also focused on workplace relationships born out of female constriction and its consequences.
It is Mr Walker, in fact, who gives voice to the play’s underpinning sentiment that echoes the themes of Machinal, that work and personal lives should never mix, that workers should in fact be ‘automatons’ delivering their tasks without emotional compromise or influence. That Van Druten takes these female characters through a process of recognition of their state and their options feels significant, and it is notable in Brasher’s production that the conclusion of their individual stories is entirely positive, although not perhaps in the way that audience or convention might expect.
The male characters also represent different archetypes and while their behaviour shapes the actions of the women, they are by no means as richly drawn. Unusually, this is not to the play’s detriment and, instead, the men are dramatic devices who deliver the women to where they need to be both physically and emotionally at the end of the play. Like their female counterparts, Van Druten creates two foregrounded men and two who exist principally in the background – Pat’s useless friend/lover Hec Hammond who cannot recognise or give voice to his feelings without help from Blanche and a comedy office boy, Birkinshaw who provides the light relief much like Stanley in Still Life.
In the more decisive roles, Eric Brewer is a man presumably in his 30s who is a serial seducer with a terrible reputation. He suffers from none of the age and marriage angst foisted on the women and instead represents a kind of lechy persistence, a toxic masculinity that, again, feels all too familiar 90-years on. The really interesting male role here is Mr Walker who remains an absent figure in Act One but with a sharp presence that shapes the office routine, especially when his back is turned, and flurries of activity forcing the staff to respond rapidly to his demands. That he becomes vital to the resolution of these stories is particularly interesting in the exercise of quiet but beneficent authority that he dispenses with a patrician’s care for his staff. Mr Walker is not afraid to make a difficult decision for the good of the firm but is all too aware of the behaviours his office provokes even if he’d rather not acknowledge it.
This compelling production at the Tower Theatre brings all of these issues and themes together really nicely, creating a deeply engaging drama that digs deep into Van Druten’s text to find considerable value in this rare revival, making a convincing case for the longevity of this work. The small auditorium makes the scene changes overlong and especially necessary in Phillip Ley’s naturalistic set design but the 1930s office aesthetic is very well captured and some economies are possible by leaving the main set in place and using Samuel Littley’s lighting to demarcate the scenes in Mr Walker’s office. On the whole, the static and faster-paced sections work equally well and Brasher has created a feeling of revolving doors with multiple entry and exit points that convincingly lead to a variety of other rooms and levels where the rest of the firm and other businesses are located. It creates a good sense of its London location with few companies able to occupy a whole building even then, so the layers of relationship drama in London Wall are facilitated by the opportunities for characters to appear from outside and infer a broader interaction with the city itself.
As Blanche, Stephanie Farrell moves in and out of the spotlight in this play, sometimes the main focus of the drama, sometimes its author as she attempts to solve the problems of others through her semi-maternal intervention, while at others she is almost part of the furniture, a staff member who has kept the place ticking over efficiently for a decade waiting for her moment, her turn to find something more. All of that is convincingly realised in Farrell’s subtle and often low-key performance but she has a gravitas that emphasises Blanche’s stalwart and pragmatic nature. Eloise McCreedy is a far more emotional creation as Pat, navigating a variety of experiences for the first time. There is a youthful naivety in Pat that McCreedy captures entirely but also a failure to even know what she wants that offers plenty of messy situations for the character. Understanding her own heart is the road Pat follows through this story and her development and ultimate happiness is well portrayed.
Nick Edwards is suitably creepy as Eric Brewer although he occasionally overdoes the affrontery when knocked back that gives the performance a touch of stiffness in places. But he has a degree of command that allows Eric to walk through the offices and impose his presence along with his demands on the women. That the office power structures fluctuate depending on the presence of Mr Walker is reflected well in Edwards’s performance as he scurries back to work at the first sight of his boss, and yet there is a sense of entitlement that underpins his behaviour. Jonathan Norris’s Mr Walker is particularly effective, emitting a real authority without fuss or frill, a business-like attitude that make him a far warmer and fairer presence than you might expect. Walker demands equal degrees of dedication and respect from male and female employees alike, while Norris also finds a gentleness and compassion, even loyalty, to his workforce that gives the actor plenty of layers to investigate even with relatively little stage time.
The acting is more variable across the other roles but they each do enough to justify the purpose of their character within Van Druten’s wider story. London Wall is by no means happy endings all round but there is some satisfaction within this Tower Theatre production that everything ends as it should and largely with the women finding different kinds of agency in their lives. Not seen in London since 2013, its first revival since its 1931 debut, London Wall presents a nuanced impression of opportunities for women in this era making this Tower Theatre production feel like a lost treasure restored.