Review of revival of John Van Druten’s play ‘London Wall’ at St James Theatre, London. A very interesting play, written in 1931, examining the situation of unmarried working women in the 1920s and 30’s
“…period details of both set and action are lovely..delightful piece of theatre.. most welcome revival”
First produced in 1931, with John Mills in the cast, John Van Druten’s “London Wall” was not performed again until Two’s Company under the direction of Tricia Thorns recreated it at the Finborough Theatre earlierthis year and now at St. James Theatre.
It is a play entirely sympathetic to the single woman’s lot at the time, depicting low wages in an era of very high unemployment, with precious little prospects if one didn’t “play one’s cards right” as character Miss Hooper (Emily Bowker) put it and snaffle a husband. Quite often, mutual affection for one’s fiancé played little part in making the choice of partner, as the important thing was to be married, as that state for many was the only route to any real form of a comfortable life and avoidance of loneliness and isolation. It was also a time when there were fewer available men than normal, not being very far removed from the First World War.
We see working women tackling this problem in their individual ways, from young newcomer Pat (Maia Alexander) to the firm of lawyers where the play is set, who is ill-prepared to deal with either the male predator of the office or the painfully slow lad from another firm who loves her from a distance, to Miss Hooper trying to pin down a divorcée ( a socially difficult choice), to the older colleague, the dignified longstanding typist Miss Blanche Janus, beautifully played by Alix Dunmore, whose lover is refusing to commit and whose future looks grim indeed. Added to the mix are a very funny worldy-wise good-time girl (Mia Austen)and an eccentric elderly client, played with dexterity by Marty Cruickshank.
Whilst not shying away from the real sadness and foreboding of much of the women’s dilemma, Van Druten expresses his message not through didacticism and judgement, but through character and plot development. Although making a serious point, the dialogue is punctuated by very humorous moments both in situation and the lines of certain characters. The plot is further spiced by a romantic comedy with plenty of obstacles in the way.
The men in the cast too play well from the strict but kindly boss (David Whitworth), whose father had issued dire warnings of the potential disasters employing women typists might bring to the office, to the all too believably arrogant seducer (Alex Robertson) and the almost farcical office boy (Craig Vye).
The set, wonderfully designed by Alex Marker, helps illustrate the punctiliousness of the work of the busy office, becoming almost an extra character when being slot into place by the cast during the scene changes, obeying the boss’s view that workers need to become “as nearly as possible an automaton or a machine”. Indeed, the period details of both set and action are lovely, including the sewing of papers and tying them with green ribbon.
The piece has rather a slow burn, as was common in plays of the period, and there is a tendency for the characters to make too forced an entrance, sometimes straining for laughs too early, but that said, the play grows to an utterly delightful piece of theatre, and a most welcome revival of this socially observant production.