Picture the scene: in the function room of a tacky motorway hotel, the gaudy carpet sticky with a thousand spilt drinks, a glitterball twinkling expectantly and a little forlornly above the as-yet deserted dance floor, the tribes begin to gather. The managing director runs through the jokes for his speech in one corner and the girls from marketing huddle by the bar. It's time for the office Christmas party and if one alcohol-fuelled night of potential professional embarrassment isn't enough for you, this year the Barbican is inviting audiences to their own uniquely theatrical take on the festive ordeal.
In the age of "grown-up" Christmas shows this year Stephen Fry has penned a new Cinderella for the Old Vic and Jonathan Harvey (Beautiful Thing, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme) has filled Mark Ravenhill's subversive boots as the creator of the Barbican's pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk Office Party Xmas 2007 must surely be the most adult offering in the repertoire.
It's part of what is rapidly becoming an illustrious annual tradition at the Barbican: for the last few years at Christmas it has worked with the performance collective and "purveyors of progressive working-class entertainment", Duckie. In C'est Barbican, audience members were presented with a menu of 30 live acts and a fistful of "Duckie dollars" with which they could purchase a custom-built evening of entertainment for their table, while last year's smash-hit The Class Club asked guests to assign themselves to a particular social echelon lower, middle or upper before enjoying a Christmas dinner with their fellow classmates.
This year's offering the brainchild of the performance artists Christopher Green and Ursula Martinez and the director Cal McCrystal promises to be similarly interactive. Party guests are encouraged to don their "best sparkly outfit" and will be greeted with a free drink and nibbles. A paying bar will also be open for business throughout ensuring that proceedings go with a swing. "We just wanted to make a show that was a party," explains McCrystal. "British people tend to go a bit mad at their office party. Whenever you hear the words you think of snogging, photocopying body parts, that kind of thing. We want people to get a bit wild and push the boat out."
McCrystal's pedigree for comedy is impressive, having directed The Mighty Boosh's original stage shows in Edinburgh and worked with the comedy theatre troupes Peepolykus and Spymonkey as well as with Cirque du Soleil. "I was head-hunted by them they needed somebody to sort their clowns out, so for three years I was Mr Cirque in Montreal and Las Vegas."
For Office Party he has assembled a crack team of eight comedians and cabaret artists to help him to recreate some stock office characters. The chief executive will be played by the "ranting redneck" Canadian comedian Glenn Wool, whose stand-up show Promises, Promises was a sell-out at Edinburgh this year. McCrystal had directed him in a spoof on The Apprentice for the Granada series Comedy Cuts and immediately cast him as the "raunchy and inappropriate" boss.
The other members of the cast play various heads of department from marketing to accounts and corporate social responsibility. Martinez and Green are the edgy double-act hired to provide the entertainment. It's a world they both know very well. "We perform at a lot of corporate parties. The office party is a culture we have witnessed from an interesting perspective as observers. That's where the fascination for making the show came from," explains Martinez, who worked on both C'est Barbican and The Class Club.
As with those shows, Office Party has a social message underlying the debauchery. "We're having a party while exploring themes such as alcohol, sexuality, hierarchy, hedonism, repression, rules and social structures."
Audience members will be treated to a number of set-pieces the standard speech from the chief executive, thanking employees for a profitable year, some cabaret numbers from the hired entertainment, and the odd drunken spectacle from the heads of department as they let their hair down. In between it will be, to all intents and purposes, a party. "We're not feeding people with entertainment every single second. There's lots of breaks where people are mingling and dancing," explains McCrystal. "We want the audience to be part of the entertainment."
Office Party taps into the current vogue for interactive promenade performances from companies such as Punchdrunk, The Shunt Collective and Duckie, which stage plays in unusual locations and refute the audience's right to remain passive observers. The runaway hit of the autumn has been Punchdrunk's The Masque of the Red Death, in which visitors are issued with a cloak and Venetian mask and are invited to wander at will around the mystical, labyrinthine world of Edgar Allen Poe's gothic tale, while in last year's Amato Saltone, theatre-goers braved the spooky Shunt vaults under London Bridge station for a film noir-inspired evening where a weirdly off-kilter cocktail party turned into a bizarre take on a murder mystery.
At the Barbican things are rooted in the rather more mundane but deliciously recognisable world of office politics. Upon arrival, guests will be given a name badge and will be assigned to a department. "What seems to happen is that it becomes a bit tribal with people feeling quite competitive with the other departments, even if they came with a bunch of friends who have been put in another group," says McCrystal, who has just overseen the first trial run of the production with a guinea-pig audience.
In one part of the show, this convivial rivalry is actively encouraged with a competition in which each department must dress one of their number in a costume representative of the spirit of Christmas. "Because the prize is something that everyone wants cheap drinks at the bar it's quite competitive," says McCrystal. "What we're really looking forward to is that we've got a couple of real office parties booked to come in. I think that's going to be wild."
If, though, the words "audience participation" strike fear into the very depths of your soul, McCrystal is keen to stress that there is something for everyone from shrinking wallflowers to limelight-loving souls. "It's not a show that's going to pick on individuals. I was very firm about that," says McCrystal. "Last night, at a preview, one guy got practically naked. He was on the stage with a balloon shoved down the front of his underpants, dancing away like there was no tomorrow. He volunteered and I think there'll be quite a lot more of that kind of thing. I don't think we're going to have to actively encourage it we just have to allow it to happen so that people feel that this is an anything-goes environment. But it's quite safe as well. My parents are coming on Saturday and I'm not in the least bit worried about them being pushed around or shocked."
'Office Party Xmas 2007', Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550), to 29 DecemberReuse content