Trafalgar Studios – until 12 May
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Joel Drake Johnson’s fine comedy drama explores thorny office politics and ingrained racist attitudes in a Chicago hospital.
Opening with surgeon Dr Williams (Bo Poraj) and office manager Ileen (Elizabeth Berrington) discussing the return to work of Jaclyn (Tanya Moodie) after a short absence, it is made clear from the outset that Williams is unpleasant, slimy and aggressive – traits that Ileen just can’t, or won’t see in him. Before even seeing Jaclyn, Williams’ comments make it clear that she is black, but they both baulk hysterically at the mention of “the race card”. Ileen has been promoted to office manager, even though she and Jaclyn are the only two workers in the office, and Williams has someone else lined up to replace Jaclyn if Ileen can collect enough evidence to remove her.
Jaclyn breezes into the office, a bundle of energy in complete contrast to Ileen’s calm and gentle demeanour. She talks knowingly and at great length about her doctor’s warnings of toxins in the office environment, and is an exhausting combination of jollity, territorialism and aggression. Throughout the play, as she becomes more aware of Ileen’s complicity with Dr Williams, Jaclyn’s behaviour becomes even more bizarre and her attitude towards a patient (albeit immediately after a confrontation with Ileen) causes her huge problems.
The insidious racism of every character (Jaclyn is disparaging about Muslims and Mexicans herself) is sadly recognisable and Sheila Reid delivers the line that drew the most gasps perfectly as an elderly patient nonchalantly telling Jaclyn that her angry is probably “revenge for slavery”. The relationship between Jaclyn and Ileen is never clear – were they friends before Jaclyn’s absence? Is Dr Williams’ intervention the real cause for the disintegration of their relationship? Berrington does well as Ileen, beginning as a timid people-pleaser and subtly becoming more and more paranoid and unhinged, while Poraj is satisfyingly smarmy as Williams. Moodie’s fantastically multi-layered performance is the highlight of the play, veering between neediness and defensive hostility with breath-taking ease. Her delivery of the pivotal monologue near the end of the play is sublime, portraying the bigotry she must endure every day outside the office.
Director Jonathan O’Boyle keeps things tight and pacy, with the running time of 90 minutes seeming much less. The laughs come thick and fast, and the situations in the play will surely make you question events that you may have brushed over or accepted in everyday life. Rasheeda Speaking is well worth a look.