Office politics

Office politics

29 March 2018

Daniella Harrison doesn't know whether to laugh or cry during Dining Al Desko

 [Ironically writing this while eating lunch.]

With a lot of the productions at this year’s festival being somewhat issue-based (shows have opened discussions about the gender binary, shootings, mental health, and so forth), it feels refreshing to watch what is a pretty simple – but well executed – comedy.

There’s a desk onstage, neatly ordered. Bic, Stabilo, Staedtler, all of the pens are in a row, all precisely organised. "9 to 5" by Dolly Parton plays. Julie (Julia Pilkington) enters. Her shirt is tucked in, her eyes round, scanning the audience. She sits at her desk and begins to talk about her work life.

Alistair Curtis’ play Dining Al Desko is split into two monologues – one by Julie, the receptionist of a company, and the second by Tom (Christopher Page), the finance manager. It’s a simple premise, as each character tells the audience directly what their worklife is like, from the precise way Julie organises her things (outbox tray next to recycling) to Tom’s incredibly messy office that he eventually barricades himself in.

But then it begins to slide. Down a slippery slope. Julie is reduced to doing coffee runs – handing out the audience’s orders as she goes – and eventually scrubbing toilets. On the other side of the office, Tom becomes addicted to online gambling, gradually taking more and more of the company money for his games.

It’s a show about how office life is killing us all. It’s about how we are obsessed with pleasing people and being successful. As Julie says in a Dobby-ish manner: “No job is below Julie because Julie wants to appear desirable to her employer.” It’s a horrible statement to hear because of its presentation of herself in third-person. It’s a form of separating from yourself, a way of making yourself into a machine, and a form of protecting. Protecting yourself from being hurt in case your boss doesn’t like what you’ve been doing.

Despite the simple premise, Curtis’ writing is superb at bringing these two characters to life, though Julie seems slightly more caricatured and sketchy than Tom. Little phrases keep popping up, such as Tom’s catchphrase, "you know", and his continuously nervous laughter. Comedy comes from not telling the audience something until halfway through a scene (“he’s in the cupboard”). The characters are brilliantly observed and the two actors are superbly skilled, holding the audience, capturing the anxieties of work life. Pilkington’s body language is squirrel-like, her wide eyes darting around the room and her arms always flurriying about. There’s a wonderful moment in which she wipes the crumbs of her almond croissant off of her desk in three precise strokes. Page’s comic timing is also brilliant. A sequence in which he recreates online gambling is particularly dark and shifts the pace of what becomes this dark and anxious comedy.

The show has great sound design by Matthew Jones, which breaks up the character’s episodes (along with an awesome playlist for audience entrance), and the screen behind them encapsulates the characters’ downhill spiral: Julie has funny episode titles behind her, while Tom has a green digital clock, piercingly ticking away the seconds.

Dining Al Desko is a hilariously written and performed comedy about the struggles of office life and our anxieties about success, and is a breath of fresh air in a festival that is incredibly issue-heavy.

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Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca