SOPHIE CUNDALL reviews the Edinburgh Fringe preview of Dining al Desko at Etcetera Theatre.

From writer Alastair Curtis, with the direction of Philippa Lawford, comes a biting satire about the kind of dreary biro-clad existence we all dread: working in an open-plan office that appears to have been kitted out by Tiger or an equally scandi-chic brand. Laughs come thick and fast, even if jokes sometimes toe a line, and the story moves quickly, more so than one might expect for such a drab environment. The comedy is fresh, and relevant; though it follows a long tradition of satirical comedies set in an office, the genre is re-imagined for an utterly millennial audience.

Our three guides to this maze of staplers and phone calls are Trish, Julie and Tom (India Opzoomer, Mia Georgis and Christopher Page), three caricatures that are painfully familiar. Julie provides us with a frantic, and increasingly tragic, secretary whose work ethic goes painfully unnoticed, being demoted and demoted. Trish is a millennial archetype, speaking through abbreviations and the language of Instagram, an influencer in the making, though a little over-egged. Tom is the classic businessman, marriage on the rocks and all, in a claustrophobic basement office that reminds us of The IT Crowd. Each actor shines in their creation of three very distinctive characters, while still maintaining a sense of community and unity, that becomes increasingly fragmented. They’re all just trying to get through their 9-5s, aided by a slew of Pret coffees. If comedy stems from the possibility to relate to something, it is unsurprising that my sides ached from laughter by the end of the night.

The level of familiarity and the interaction between the audience and the characters we see on stage is one of the play’s strongest points. On a sweaty, sticky night in a July heatwave, the upper floor of a pub takes on the attributes of the office in which the play immerses us. There is a keen sense of stress and discomfort in the room, something bubbling under the surface, as there is throughout the play. The fourth wall is also shattered, mirroring Trish’s career path as she smashes glass ceilings. We are even invited into a business meeting lead by Trish, complete with hashtags, and are reminded to ‘wake up and smell the decaf’, one of the show’s many punchy one liners. The play takes the format of a sequence of monologues from each of the trinity of characters, in front of a white board emblazoned with sentences to introduce the next scene. There is a slightly Brechtian feel to this; though we are invited into the action, we are also distanced from it, by these slides that remind us of silent movies. The lack of fourth wall becomes particularly pertinent in the shocking ending of Tom’s storyline; his searching eyes for sympathy after his actions are striking, and the extent to which the slides have removed us from the characters emotionally is called into question.

Excellent acting aside, the play’s treatment of its female characters is worth discussing. It seems to hesitate between a progressive narrative that is refreshing and perhaps even feminist, and a somewhat outdated approach to female friendship and rivalry over an attractive boss that reaches a low point with body-shaming jokes from Julie towards Trish. A joke about a co-worker’s homosexuality also misses the mark. There is a sense of an attempt at a plotline that echoes our post #metoo world, but the reduction of this to Trish blackmailing the boss to keep his actions quiet and allow him to keep his job is a watered down version of #grlpwr that doesn’t sit comfortably. Perhaps it was part of the slightly surrealist approach to comedy used throughout but firing the boss and actually punishing him for his actions would have been more progressive and useful as a conclusion. The inclusion of these issues is effective, if slightly heavy-handed. The ending sees Trish reaching her goals, but the way she gets there is flawed.

The play is well worth a watch, especially if you have ever spent days staring at a computer screen for 8 hours in an office where the drama du jour is who has forgotten to wash their mug up in the kitchenette. The acting is brilliant, and the plot engaging. There is a sense of the ending having taken things too far with some details bordering on the outlandish and absurd, however the surreal feel it creates works well if you are prepared to utterly suspend your disbelief. If you want to be entertained, and feel somewhat seen, this is a must-see play.

Dining al Desko is previewing again on July 22nd before going to the Edinburgh Fringe. Find more information here.

Featured image courtesy of Kate Weir.