Top Dogs, Southwark Playhouse, London

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The Independent Culture

I don't go quite as far as the aesthete Logan Pearsall Smith, who said, "I never read a book before reviewing it: it prejudices one so", but I have decided it's a bad idea to read the programme before the play. Look at the conclusion I might have jumped to from seeing that Urs Widmer, the Swiss author of Top Dogs, describes his plays as "full of humour, wit and esprit".

Dialogue Productions may have subjected its audience to 80 minutes of self-important inanity, but it has done wonders for my inferiority complex about the supposed greater sophistication of the Continent. This play, first staged in Zurich in 1996, won three German theatre awards the following year, including the critics' prize for the best new play. Yet there is not a minute's worth of novelty or surprise in Patricia Benecke's production, and not an instant of visual excitement or pleasure.

Four actors and two actresses, all in dark suits, introduce themselves by their real names, then begin playing their roles: Mary is the director of an executive retraining agency, and the others are her clients, all recently sacked. She puts them through a series of exercises designed to expose their weaknesses and then expunge them.

Some of these are brief and what the generous might call impressionistic. The unemployed call out names of big companies in tones of reverence or imminent orgasm. They walk back and forth, looking sillier and sillier, while Mary gives them suggestions on improving their posture.

Later, a man told to take the part of his boss tells himself off for being a failure not only at work but at home, and dissolves into tears. An unemployed man and his wife play each other and reveal their mutual contempt. Corporate heartlessness and marital tensions are, of course, still with us, but we might be watching material from a few decades ago, so bereft is the writing of present-day detail and insight.

What is noteworthy here is the strain of self-pity. In a sketch called "Utopia of Humanity", one of the men voices a hope for a world in which no one will be lonely or have nothing. Is he talking about the Africans with no food or clean water or protection from violent death? No, of the upper-middle-class man bereft of his Mercedes.

Utopia is close at hand, however, as another look at the programme shows. Incredibly, a career consultancy thought Top Dogs was a fine showcase. It can, its advert promises, show you how to "win your ideal job", "achieve your ambitions" and "enjoy work!". Thank goodness for programmes. Without them, we might never laugh at all.

To 20 September (020-7620 3494)