Inequality and sexual politics in the workplace are common themes in the theatre today, but not something you would expect from a 1930’s play. However, London Wall, at the Abbey Theatre from next week, is set in a City solicitor’s office at that time. It’s a fascinating and touching play that strongly evokes the atmosphere of the time, and the concerns of working women.
This engaging social comedy was written by John Van Druten. The name may not be familiar, but Van Druten is best known for I Am A Camera (1951), his dramatisation of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories, which famously formed the basis of the musical Cabaret.
London Wall was written much earlier in 1931. It starred the young John Mills in the West End, and was not revived until 2013 at the Finborough Theatre. Director Tina Swain commented that, “It impressed audiences with its shrewd observation and surprisingly modern take on office politics, the limited career options for unmarried women, and sexual double standards.”
Husbands were still hard to find after the wholesale slaughter of the First World War. Jobs were scarce. Nearly three million people were unemployed in the UK. Women faced a life of low-wage drudgery as secretaries or typists. An office girl would count herself fortunate to earn thirty shillings a week, perhaps rising to three pounds after ten years of service. Matrimony offered the only escape.
The story focusses largely on the lives and loves of these women, primarily nineteen year old Pat Milligan. A naïve orphan who is dating a shy young shipping clerk, Pat finds herself the target of the firm’s lothario, Mr Brewer. He regards the girls in the office as fair game. Nowadays it would be called sexual harassment, but then it was part and parcel of daily life.
At the other end of the scale we see her senior, Miss Janus, who has spent the best years of her life working while waiting for marriage. At 35, she fears her romantic life may now be over as her last chance for marriage seems to be slipping away. Yet she reveals a steely determination combined with a surprisingly romantic side.
London Wall features an array of fascinating characters, including Miss Hooper, who is seeing a married man. He is unlikely to ask his wife for a divorce though. Also we meet Miss Bufton, a modern young woman with a string of boyfriends. But is she too free with her favours to secure a husband? Then there is Miss Willesden, who shows that money doesn’t necessarily bring happiness or security, as the life of a wealthy, elderly spinster is no less precarious.
Performances take place in the Abbey Theatre Studio from Friday 7th to Saturday 8th October at 8pm; on Sunday 9th October at 2.30pm; and from Tuesday 11th to Saturday 15th October at 8pm. To book tickets go to www.abbeytheatre.org.uk or call the box office on 01727 857861.