Office Party is the creation of the performers Christopher Green and Ursula Martinez. It was staged at the Barbican in 2007 and has also appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe; it now makes a reappearance in Islington. Set in the corporate headquarters of Product Solutions, the show is designed to simulate a real office party, with the audience acting as the staff members, obliged to interact with people they have never met before. And as with a real office party it is dependent on your willingness to give yourself up to the slightly awkward and cringe-worthy entertainment on offer.
The evening is full of managerial speeches, party games and stage performances, as well as dancing, singing and stripping. On the whole it can feel a bit safe; in its efforts to create an environment in which the unexpected can take place, things can feel a bit – well – expected. This is not to say that a lot of thought hasn’t gone into the show and into creating the atmosphere of the office. As we enter, we are given name badges, and told which department of the ‘company’ we are to be part of. We are then subjected to separate departmental briefings, which is a successful way of getting the audience to unwind. As in any event of this kind, people arrive stiff and uncertain, wanting to have a good time but not quite ready to let themselves go.
Just as with many real office parties, the night feels awkwardly paced. What with the briefings, the entrance into the main party space and the initial queue for drinks (no free bar here, you pay for your own), the build-up is too long. This has the effect of making the middle section of the party, where things are really in full swing, seem relatively short – no sooner have we entered it than we are into the final phase where things start to go much further.
The production notes boast ‘7 rooms, 14 actors’, but this is misleading in one respect: while the initial briefings take place in a variety of venues, the main party only occurs in the one large theatre space. It means that though we learn about the executive team, the relationships between them and the state of the company as a whole, no space is left for sub-plots concerning illicit affairs in the photocopying room or canoodling in the stationary cupboard.
One of the chief joys of the production is working out who is a performer and who isn’t. Sometimes it soon becomes obvious, but as everyone converses freely with everyone else, and the party games can involve anyone (although at no point is any audience member made to do something they really don’t want to), it’s not always easy to tell the cast apart from the punters. The strongest element of the evening is the performances of Green and Martinez, as the professionals hired to provide the office party’s entertainment. I won’t say what they do, as a degree of surprise is vital for an experience of this kind, but if you’re familiar with their past work at all you might have an idea what they get up to.
With Christmas approaching, Office Party is selling itself as a great night out for any real office’s seasonal outing. I don’t disagree (and I certainly wouldn’t recommend going alone), but you will need to be in the right frame of mind to get the most out of the experience, and so I would suggest plying yourself with copious amounts of alcohol throughout, and, above all, being willing to give yourself over to the party spirit.