Reviewed by Hannah Wallis
'Come in. Sit down. How’s things?’ And so it begins. A dark, absurdist and brutal comedy that descends into a disturbingly realistic prophecy of a corporate life.
Emma, an employee at a big multinational, is bound to a contract whereby she must not leave any aspect of her private life undeclared in order to keep her job. This could be an ideal foundation for humour. The disparity over what Emma and Darren, her love interest, define as ‘romantic’ is amusing, and the audience settles nicely into the comedy.
But for the boss, the presence of a candle at the employee’s ‘romantic’ dinner is a matter of protocol, and needs to be resolved. The relentless probing has begun. The professional-personal boundary is obliterated. The boss tries an awkward human gesture, professing occasionally, ‘oh, just small talk’, but really, Emma’s every utterance is being detailed and filed. The veneer of interest and care barely masks the obsessive and inhumane quest for answers; the term ‘care’ is only familiar to her because of the company’s ‘duty of care’ pamphlet that she can produce at a flourish at any sign of emotion on Emma’s part.
The set design of the simplistic office reflects the corporate environment. The nameless boss is on stage as the audience enters the auditorium, and does not leave until we do, fitting for a character with an obsessive commitment to her job and lack of a more human existence outside of the workplace. Even between scene changes, she doesn’t leave her office den of manipulation and heartlessness, continuing to pace and do paperwork as a blue sterile light floods the stage. Perhaps the fact that the clock wasn’t working was not intended, but it did serve to emphasise the obsessive, repetitive questions and heighten the intensity of the play.
Thus the play swerves from comedy to sinister realism and it makes for uncomfortable viewing, which Mark Bartlett, author of the play, has mastered elsewhere, in his BBC drama, Doctor Foster. We’re forced to keep watching, just as Emma is repeatedly summoned to the office, but we’re begging for some kind of dénouement, to put an end to this tortuous episode. But there’s more, and as Emma brings a shoe box supposedly containing her dead son onto the stage, the audience is paralysed between laugher and distress in the climax to this piece of dark absurdist theatre. It’s a relief to see the actresses step out of the office and smile, and to escape the nightmare we’ve just endured with them.