Dining Al Desko takes place in a company office that feels like the internship of your nightmares: where postgraduate dreams go to die, with Pret Coffees offering little consolation. Employees are hiding in toilets, working in the basement, and in a moment of pure tragicomedy, demoted to the point of being deskless.
Alastair Curtis’ tale of office politics achieves something quite special: giving us belly laughs and moments of poignancy that don’t feel forced. Yet it is undoubtedly the coherence of direction which gives it a degree of professionalism beyond what we would expect from student theatre. (A BT play consisting of three intertwined monologues, with no one leaving the stage, could be a punishing prospect).
The standard of acting is masterful from the beginning, as Julia Pilkington eases us in with her confident performance as receptionist Julie, an endearing yet tragic figure on a career path to redundancy, despite her hilariously earnest efforts to be useful. Pilkington’s performance is brilliantly convincing as Julie refers to herself in the third person – “Julie is going places because Julie doesn’t take her lunch” – and as she tells us (but mainly herself) that her demotion is a possibility for ‘reinvention’. Her pained optimism is delivered with excellent comedic timing.
Chris Page has his work cut out as Tom from finance, an equally pathetic character who is in denial about everything, from his doomed marriage to his gambling addiction. The play reaches its absurd climax when Tom’s delusions and the consequences of his actions clash head on. Page fully comes into his own as Tom’s situation becomes dire, and delivers the most aggressive crisp eating you are likely to see. As is the case with Julie, this is a nuanced study of character in a pressurised environment, Curtis finds hilarity in how both characters cope when the odds are stacked against them.
If you saw Dining Al Desko six months ago when it was first put on in Oxford, the addition of Kate Weir as the new intern Trish is the reason why it is totally worth seeing again. Her performance is very, very funny. Trish is the kind of character Ricky Gervais was missing in The Office; the co-worker no one wants to sit beside. She is as arrogant as she is ambitious, a social media ‘influencer’ who speaks in hashtags (one colleagues breakdown is summarised as ‘#mental’). Considering this, the script and Weir’s performance does a great job of making us root for her anyway. Trish is not the unfeeling female careerist archetype that we have become accustomed to seeing. She has a tear in her eye when she fires Julie, and the way she tells us about the harassment she faces from her boss Mark, as though its almost an afterthought, is particularly poignant. The pause Weir takes before Trish mumbles ‘super cool’ is uncomfortably long, it breaks up the high energy of the play in a striking moment intimacy. Here the play reveals the substance beneath the funny stuff, Trish isn’t caricature but a real person whose experience brings home the conversation that’s happening about harassment in the work place.
When this play was first reviewed by Cherwell six months ago the verdict was that the script carried the play and made up for any lapses in performance. That is certainly not the case now. Here, the direction and the performances bring hilarity and poignancy to the script and tease out its potential. Dining Al Desko has the feel of a professional production, and at a student price, there’s no good reason to miss it.