Armchair Theatre – Office Party (17th August 1971)

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Fay Weldon’s Office Party might not be the sharpest ever AT, but it’s still of interest – partly since it’s a good example of the studio-bound ITV play (something which would gradually disappear from the schedules) but also because Weldon’s script offers up plenty of food for thought regarding gender politics (even if the problems she creates are resolved rather neatly by the end).

The setting is a bank, after hours, where the staff have convened to wish their manager (played by George A. Cooper) a fond-ish farewell.  Cooper plays to type as a plain-speaking man who is well aware that he’s not particularly loved (or even well liked) but still condones the party. Perhaps he likes receiving presents.

Also slotting into a familiar role is Peter Barkworth as his number two, Dickie. Barkworth seemed to spend most of his career playing buttoned-down types who had a distinct code of old fashioned honour.  At first, Dickie seems to regard his secretary, Julia (Angharad Rees), with nothing but contempt, but by the end of the play he’s mellowed considerably.

Rees exudes an undeniable sexiness – especially when she arrives at the party wearing a somewhat revealing dress. This inflames the passions of some of her colleagues (Giles Block and Peter Denyer both give good turns in this respect).  Roy (Block) seems somewhat put out when he tells Julia that he’s placed her top of his list of most desirable office females (she fails to respond in the manner he expects).

If Rees is vulnerable at times then Ray Brooks is rather boorish as Dave (Julia’s boyfriend). He exhibits little loyalty towards her, even after learning that she’s pregnant, and seems much more interested in squiring another young lady round the party and telling Roy all about his liaisons with Julia in the stationery cupboard. Dave is an alpha male – friendship with his male buddies comes first, a relationship with his girlfriend is a distant second.

The clash between Julia and Dave midway through is clearly one of the play’s key points. At this stage it looks as if any sort of relationship between them will be impossible (marriage is certainly out of the question). There’s a happy ending though as the pair reconcile in the last minutes which means that everything seems to be settled. Although given that both have rather volatile natures, possibly we’re invited to not expect them to live happily ever after ….

Elsewhere, I did enjoy the confrontation between Barkworth and Cooper late on. Julia is, once again, the topic of conversation, with the outgoing manager insistent that she be sacked whilst Dickie shows a more compassionate side to his nature by standing by her.

That Dickie, when learning of Julia’s pregnancy, offers her a chair feels exactly like the sort of thing you’d expect a character played by Barkworth to do. Julia remains passive as the men debate her fate (at one point turning her bare back on them) but she does eventually speak up.

Office Party has some good comic moments, along with a first rate cast to play them, and overall it still stands up well. As I’ve said, it maybe doesn’t entirely satisfy, but there are far worse ways to spend fifty minutes.

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