on 5 September 2012
A general office in a street off Holborn in the mid-1930s seems an unlikely setting for any kind of drama, let alone one involving a life and death story. J. B. Priestley further dampens our excitement with one of his first stage directions: even prewar Londoners would find this is an "ordinary general office room of the more old-fashioned kind" (and one without a working chimney). A layer of soot and a lack of shiny computers make this an almost alien world, until the staff begin trooping in and the room is occupied by a range of characters whose hopes and dreams are as familiar as any played out in a modern office.
The company itself - the import firm Briggs and Murrison - has its own character, which is somewhat stressed out as bankruptcy looms. Jim Cornelius is the ever-optimistic partner, dominant without being overbearing, fighting a losing battle against his creditors, and another kind of battle against a more existential threat. At one point he breaks out of the run-of-the-mill daily grind to ask the amiable old clerk Biddle whether he ever feels he's been wasting his time. Biddle doesn't quite follow his boss's drift, and so Cornelius expands: "I mean, that you've wasted your life, just as if you'd taken it and poured it down the drain." No wonder Biddle's nonplussed (as I think many of us would be). Priestley's skill as a dramatist is to embed these moments within a naturalistic setting that draws you in and makes plausible what is actually quite remarkable.
What helps this naturalism are the perennial concerns of office politics and office relationships (the ambitious office boy, the neatly turned out secretary with a secret crush on her boss, the old timer planning his retirement), and also several surprisingly familiar business practices (the day is full of interruptions, by a Rug Man, a Young Woman selling pens, and a Paper Towel Man, all unsolicited callers desperately trying to sell things no one wants to buy).
I was lucky to see the superb production directed by Sam Yates at the Finborough Theatre in 2012, which demonstrated just how good a play this can be in performance, and which raises the question of just why this classic has been forgotten.