Boardrooms are treading the boards

Setting a play in an office can make for a good bottom line. Time to put a suit and tie on, says Michael Coveney
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The Independent Culture

Most of us go to the theatre to get out of the office. If you work as a pen-pusher or screen slave, you spend a third of your life in the galleys. So who needs to revisit the office they've just left at the theatre?

The fact is, though, that office life is a microcosm of the real world and, and so handy as a large-scale theatrical metaphor. And the latest in this ever-expanding genre is a new play, Mongrel Island, by an unknown writer, Ed Harris, at London's Soho Theatre, in which all sorts of weird happenings take place under the sodium lights and between the filing cabinets.

It's a surreal, far cry from the television mockumentary The Office, in which Ricky Gervais's David Brent rules the roost in a petty hierarchy of losers and jobsworths. Significantly, Gervais, who worked in an office himself for five years, once said it was so exciting that, "if there was a screech of brakes, there'd be thirty people rushing to the window."

Ed Harris is not so much inventing an alternative fantasy office life as subverting the reality of a prosaic setting where the peculiar employees are processing carers' timesheets. In his stage directions – "the office is uninspiring to the point of being maddening" -- there is one window, three desks, one partitioned area and a stationary cupboard.

But Human Resources are moving in, and there may be changes made. Meanwhile one of the staff starts fixing his bike. Another encounters an eleven-foot prawn called Jimmy. There's some explicit hanky panky between the rolling racking. And odd objects are leaping out of the files: dentures, wire bra supports, a metal hip replacement and a pair of children's pink shoes.

Is this some sort of revenge on personal experience? Thirty-year-old Harris, a Brighton-based poet and playwright, worked as a carer for a few months (in between jobs as a binman and a husky trainer in Lapland). But he has also worked in what he calls "loveless, low-level dead-end office jobs" where he could cope with the boringness, but not everyone's insistence that what he was doing was important. "You know it's not. There's always an absurd, repetitive circulation of files in order just to keep more people busy."

Later this year, at "Products Solutions Head Office," (venue to be confirmed, opening in October), you can sign up to the seasonal Office Party of alternative comedy performers Ursula Martinez and Christopher Green. They offer what they describe as "a raucous, hysterically funny interactive theatre-comedy-cabaret experience", without any need to look for a new job the next day.

There is definitely an office "thing" in our theatre at the moment. At last year's Edinburgh Festival, the Traverse Theatre, epicentre of new writing, hosted both Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl by a pair of Philadelphia-based artists, Geoff Sobelle and Charlotte Ford and My Romantic History by D C Jackson.

In the first, green tropical plants sprouted from the filing cabinets, and stuffed animals appeared on the glass partitions, during "an ordinary day" in the office of a fast food company. A stoat was on the floor, a moose was on the loose, as the natural world invaded the purveyors of synthetic gunk. In the second, romantic melancholy and yearning filled the cavernous setting of cardboard boxes in an unspecified workplace, as an office love affair was re-spooled and spliced with memories of a childhood infatuation.

There are no offices in Shakespeare or the Greeks, although modern productions bring in committee rooms and closed circuit television anyway. Kevin Spacey's Old Vic Richard III meets his Waterloo, so to speak, at the Battle of Bosworth, not in a tent, but at an anonymous functional office table. Soldiers and dukes all wear office suits.

'Mongrel Island', Soho Theatre, London W1 (020 7478 0100; Thursday to 6 August