Workplace comedies have become a staple of British TV in the last 20 years. From the sarcastic W1A, to the global success of The Office – it’s a subgenre with strong foundations. How it hasn’t become a staple of theatre seems odd to me. Even several Google searches couldn’t produce any relevant results. So,when an email came through inviting me to see a “long form improvised play set in a day to day office” I was immediately intrigued.
Fast-forward to last Tuesday, having arrived at The Local Theatre in Snig Hill, I sat down at a table in an alarmingly bright white room covered in felt-tip doodles in place of actual décor. Waiting before the show started, I read back through the original email only to spot I’d missed a crucial word – ‘improvised’. Reader, I’ll admit I’d only ever seen one improvised show before: a Jane-Austen style comedy play called Austentatious that was on tour at a theatre back home some years ago. Not that I thought this would help much. There can’t be much overlap between the modern-day office and Regency England.
The comedic events of the night began before we even saw the ‘stage’, with the actors having to carry any alcoholic drinks down to the basement ‘auditorium’ for reasons even they couldn’t really explain (something to do with environmental regulations?). A rather fitting start I suppose given the often non-sensical nature of workplace regulations. We dutifully followed them downstairs, entering a room not much larger than a stationary supply cupboard, and we filed into two rows of seats along one side of the room. On the other side, a pair of wheelie office chairs – the ‘set’.
For the performance to begin, the audience was required to decide the topic of the comedy: the place of work. Previously they’d had “Primark” and “making IKEA furniture”. One overeager man was adamant that this time the show would be about “graphic designers who make postage stamps” – a scenario so random that I doubt previous rehearsal could have helped much.
Worryingly the first joke made was about drawing penises and I became concerned that I may be in for a night of school-boy humour. However, throughout the first half the actors found their feet, and were able to keep the jokes flowing. Matthew Prestage’s energetic and quick-witted performance as Kevin, the oldest employee (despite being the youngest actor), with his early-adopted catchphrase, “You remind me of me when I was your age”, was particularly entertaining. Kevin’s continual quest to find sources of inspiration for the company (including stealing the doors of Uber cars for their advertisements) provided momentum to the plot, helped by Prestage’s ability to work well with the other actors.
Pierre Finnimore also stood out as ‘copier guy’, Alf. Equally obsessed as he is incompetent with technology, especially printers, his performance contained all the British awkwardness of The IT Crowd’s Maurice Moss, minus the technical know-how (he thinks Windows 98 is the most recent release because it’s the highest number).
Occasionally the different comedic styles within the cast clashed, and it was quickly apparent which dynamics worked best. Any awkward silences weren’t helped by the bizarre assigned office setting. In fact, it was never quite certain what the company actually did. But this became part of the farce. Throughout the show the designers seemed to specialise in making grotesque paraphernalia. In particular, a range called “Blaspheeeme” centred around ‘vandalised’ national treasures: the 1966 England football team as a human centipede necklace; a wood carving of David Bowie having sex with a bear; Stephen Fry without legs; Graham Norton without a mouth; The Queen in multiple compromising positions. Some of these may have been stamps.
This couldn’t last, however, with the team soon running into trouble with the IRA, Uber, and The Queen herself. A final improvised scene involved Alf, who turned out to be the Queen’s grandson, begging her not to kill all the employees – she agreed, but as long as they reverted to making Royal Mail stamps.
A show certainly like no other, Work In Progress was light-hearted, imaginative, and utterly strange – I wonder what the other nights have produced.
Featured image: The Local Theatre