John van Druten’s play London Wall was first produced in the West End in 1931, but it takes such a wry, incisive look at the position of women in the workplace that it feels as if it could have been written far more recently.
Set in a City solicitors firm, the play has two main narrative arcs, those of the innocent young new girl Pat Milligan (Maia Alexander) and the more senior Miss Janus (Alix Dunmore), who has been working at the firm for a decade. Pat is torn between the steady, rather unromantic attentions of a boy her own age, Hec (Timothy O’Hara), and the comparatively exciting advances of one of the firm’s lawyers, Mr. Brewer (Alex Robertson), who appears to have more money and more charm. Meanwhile, Miss Janus battles on with her seemingly ambivalent, unseen fiance, because, at thirty-five, she worries it is too late to find anybody else to marry her – and the alternative is too awful to consider.
Tricia Thorns’ production is incredibly well cast, especially Robertson, who is perfect as the slimy Brewer, the epitome of the cad, and Dunmore, whose performance as the dignified Miss Janus is strong and humorous and brimming with desperation; she’s heartbreakingly affecting in the role because her performance is so understated. Indeed, every actor seems so well-fitted for their role it’s easy to forget the play was written over 80 years ago.
It is a shame that London Wall has been forgotten for so long. Van Druten’s play is an excellent exploration of the relative autonomy of working women, finally granted the freedom of a little independence and an income of their own, but only with the caveat that they do almost nothing with it. Their desk is really just a new place for them to to sit and wait for somebody to marry them, a change of scenery disguised as emancipation, working for men who are only happy to have them around if it means that they can sleep with them.
In spite of a few slightly overwrought and time-consuming set changes, the whole thing feels very well-measured and perfectly considered. Thorns’s direction is, like the script and most of the performances, understated yet satisfying. It is a period piece, but with one eye kept all the time on the reality of things, and the depressing fact that the glass ceiling may have been raised quite a lot higher these days but has far from disappeared.
The production has charm in abundance; sometimes there is something just so comforting and lovely about watching a play, which while not particularly daring or very original, contents itself instead with simply being very good theatre: well-made, well-performed, heart-warming and unexpectedly moving.