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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Since all these Misses were underpaid drudges with little hope for advancement higher paid and more interesting work, the formal address was the means for keeping women in their place (the office equivalent of the Downstairs half of Upstairs/Downstairs) and avoiding complications resulting from their arrival in the once all-male office scene. This system of who's in charge and who's a lowly worker bee, was further codified by addressing the upper echelon men as "Mister" and those with the lowliest jobs by their last names.
John Van Druten, per the above quote, viewed himself as someone not given to writing message plays. However, the fact that the hopes and problems of the typists at Messrs. Walker, Windemere & Co. has obvious parallels in situations faced by today's more empowered working women, does make this revival more than just a chance to once again experience the once popular entertaining well-made 3-acter.
Though the message is there when seeing London Wall long after its 1931 premiere it doesn't negate the fun of seeing a traditional drawing room comedy moved to an old-fashioned law office. While the Mint revival, as directed by Davis McCallum, takes a little too much time to gather full steam it is, as is usual at the Mint, staged with loving attention to authentic detail by Marion Williams.
Since, like most dramas of this era, London Wall has a large cast, the slow tempo of the first act is something of a necessity. That is, if all the characters and their various personal problems and feelings and a central situation are to be established.
While Mr. Walker is the man in charge, the first act's focus in on his associate Mr. Brewer (Stephen Plunkett). Brewer is the play's villain since he uses his charm, good looks and position to make moves on the typists most likely to succumb. While sexual harassment is an as yet unknown term, it's a safe bet that he'll somehow get his comeuppance before the play's end.
At any rate, with the arrival of Miss Pat Milligan (Elise Kibler), the newest and youngest staff member, Brewer clearly intends to make his next conquest. And it is the way this sexual cat and mouse game plays out that dominates everything.
Brewer's is abetted in his plan to eventually lure Miss Milligan into his bed by the office good time girl Miss Bufton (Katie Gibson). Her bragging about her theater dates makes Brewer's offer to take Miss Milligan to the theater irresistible. But to checkmate Brewer's game of seduction, there's Pat's friend Hec Hammond (Christopher Sears), the poor young aspiring writer she fancies; also Miss Janus (Julia Coffey), who wants to save her from getting trapped in a go-nowhere relationship as and facing a life term in boring, low wage job as she has.
All the typists who pop in and out of the office — their costumes by Martha Hally as vividly authentic as the sets — reinforce the idea that the only success formula available to them is to become a Mrs instead of a Miss. While Miss Milligan is still young enough to not see herself as part of this picture, Miss Hooper (Alex Trow) like Miss Janus has been in a long-term relationship that has not brought a wedding ring.
The firm's rich but eccentric client, Miss Willesden (Laurie Kennedy) isn't too nutty to, like Miss Janus, see the danger of a young girl like Pat Milligan to miss out on a good life when the blush of youth wears off. And while computers and other acouterments of the information age have no place in these solicitors' office, we see that information, especially gossip, has a way of spreading — in this case via the cheeky Birkenshaw's (Matthew Gumley) shameless listening in on everyone's phone calls.
The cast overall is excellent, but standout honors go to Julia Coffey. She makes the most of Van Druten's most likeable and fully realized character, the senior typist and doomed to spinsterhood Miss Coffey. facing the disheartening turning point in her own affair, Coffey's Miss Janus gathers the courage to move on and steps up her determination to play Cupid to the naive young typist and her socially inept young friend.
While Coffey has plenty of stage time, the other standout performer, Jonathan Hogan is a cameo player in the first two acts. Having seen him many times, I knew that London Wall couldn't possibly end without his having a chance to shine. And so he does. His gamely trying to deal with his junior lawyer's misbehavior, what seems like an "epidemic" of resignations, and a strange clause in the will of Miss Willesdon is a highlight not just of the third act but the entire play. Like J.B. Priestley Cornelius (also revived Off-Broadway after an initial run at London's Finborough Theatre), the combination of a dated yet timely and enjoyable office comedy is no doubt a draw for audiences since London Wall sold enough tickets to extend its run even before the official opening. It will be interesting to see if that will also be the case for a revival of one of Van Druten's biggest hits, I Remember Mama, by another invaluable Off-Broadway Company, the Transport Group.