Mongrel Island, Soho Theatre, London
Tuesday 26 July 2011
"Work is more fun than fun," Noel Coward once declared. As far as we know, though, Noel never had to drudge from nine to five in an office processing the timesheets of care-workers. That happens to be the fate of Marie, the twentysomething harried and likeable central character in Mongrel Island, Ed Harris's accomplished, if slightly trying play.
From Kafka and Alan Bennett to The Office and The IT Crowd, there has never been a shortage of good drama about the soul-destroying grind of low-level bureaucratic existence. More reminiscent of Anything for a Quiet Life, an early Complicite show, Mongrel Island pushes the madness of mind-numbing routine towards a deranged surrealism. When Gareth's stapler is entombed in jelly as a practical joke in The Office, it's a rare dab of Dalí in the dullness of their lives. It would be par for the course in the world conjured up here.
With its flickering fluorescent ceiling panels, weirdly flipping wall clock and three-person workforce who punch in data in synch, Steve Marmion's clever, darkly droll production is attuned from the outset to the lunacy latent in this milieu. When Marie (portrayed in a funny and sympathetic performance by Robyn Addison) starts to work late into the night on reports about the careworkers' deceased charges, it's as though the life that has been dehumanised to fit the format of the file strikes back during her sleep-deprived hours. An elderly, babushka-like cleaning lady masticates memoranda and gives birth through her mouth to a beautiful, living baby. Shane Zaza's shyly rebellious Elvis-nut shows you not the weasel under the cocktail cabinet à la Pinter, but the six-foot prawn in the mobile shelving.
The show does, though, lack any strong sense of where it is heading and ends up feeling like a mordant, pitch-black miscellany that neglects to add up to more than the sum of its parts. But in a play haunted by death, suicide, depression, defeatism and dysfunctional parent-child relationships, Harris displays a raw sensitivity to these subjects and a devastatingly vibrant turn of phrase about them. Many of the latter are spat out by Simon Kunz as the offices's cynical, middle-aged Iago figure whose heartache causes an avalanche of pink ballet slippers to plummet from every office orifice. A talent to look out for.
To 6 August (020 7478 0100)
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