Push Up, Royal Court Upstairs London

All's fair in love and business
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You know the story of the doting mother at a military parade who nudges her neighbour and says, "Just look at that. Everybody's out of step but our Johnny." I had a rather similar experience watching Ramin Gray's wonderful production of Push Up, a drolly dark comedy of office politics by the German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig. The play is topped and tailed by monologues delivered from the perspective of, respectively, a male and a female security guard in the skyscraper of an unnamed global corporation. But Gray has punctuated the proceedings proper (edgy duologues between rival colleagues) with two sequences where the guards arrive for work and change into their uniforms – a digital clock monitoring for us the exact lengths of this epically prosaic process.

There's a lovely deadpan effrontery to detaining an audience for the three minutes it takes the man to perform his locker-room transformation, and the two it takes the woman. What makes the episodes all the funnier is that they are accompanied by music that is a combination of woozy lushness and crackpot relentlessness. Even more killing was the fact that I seemed to be the only person in the audience keeling over with laughter. I'm still not sure I was supposed to be.

The play proper cracks off with a sequence reminiscent, in its ultra-modern way, of the fan-twirling scenes in Restoration comedy, where two bitchy women do one another down. We find two power-suited female executives, engaged in synchronised action on swivel-lever chairs separated by a forbidding desk. The issue is that the younger one (Lucy Whybrow) has been turned down for a posting by her superior (Sian Thomas). The common denominator, or so the latter thinks, is her husband, Kramer, the company's numero uno. The twistedness that afflicts these female competitors in a male-dominated workforce reaches a new pitch of diseased refinement when the excellent Ms Thomas spells out her position: "Just so you understand: the problem is not that you are fucking my husband. The problem is that you need to."

I'd love to know what Caryl Churchill makes of this piece, which seems to reverse the mentality of her 1982 play, Top Girls. Her message was that women in work need to resist becoming super-clones of the other sex. But in Push Up – in a way that would be easy to mistake for a faint but systematic misogyny – that option is never addressed, not even as a remote possibility.

The women, on the whole, seem more dangerous than the men. The second episode is between two thirtysomethings (David Tennant and Jacqueline Defferary) who have coupled in the managing director's office during a party, with disastrous effects. It's significant that the woman is the more destructive. Perhaps that's why one feels most comfortable with the last scene, where women are potently present only by virtue of their physical absence – the dead wife of a sixtysomething exec approaching the scrap-heap (a moving Robin Soans) and the porno-fantasy female of his young rival's disembodied, internet-surfing lust. This, though, is an arresting piece, which makes one hope that the Court will import more of Schimmelpfennig's work.


To 2 March (020-7565 5100)