Review by Sam Waite
What would you do if you won a ludicrous sum of money? Not the saintly, good-person answer you’re thinking of – the raw, unfiltered, morals-be-damned one you pretend took some thought? Abandon your loved ones and live a life of luxury? Would you never work again, and make a point of your perfectly manicured feet never touching the ground? This central question is asked, and nearly answered, by Windfall, a new comedy making its UK debut at the Southwark Playhouse.
Our ragtag team of workers are employed in a suitably vague “data entry” company under the maniacal leadership of owner Glenn Brannon. The initial set-up is a sort of mashup of an Office-style sitcom and an office-set comedy film – 9 to 5 feels a particularly apt comparison when the idea of murdering or otherwise harming Mr Brannon is casually thrown around. Incensed by the addition of a new hire and the threat of one of them losing their job, the workers all pool together to purchase thousands of lottery tickets, hoping to split a $500,000,000 jackpot.
Former Strictly pro Joanne Clifton makes her debut as a non-musical theatre actress in the role of new starter Jacqueline Vanderbilt. (No, not those Vanderbilts) Her comedic timing is strong and her more emotionally driven moments give a depth to a character who seems an ice queen at first glance but is as desperate as her new colleagues. Clifton and Audrey Anderson, in her UK stage debut, work beautifully as foils – Anderson’s Hannah is a financially unstable woman in a miserable marriage and quick to make assumptions about Jacqueline, and wears her emotions on her sleeve where her new workmate is more demure and more self-contained.
The rest of this small cast have a believable chemistry and quickly elevate their characters beyond the sitcom archetypes they’re clearly drawn from. Judith Amsenga and Gabriel Paul progressively pull back the layers of Office Manager Kate and hardest-worker Galvan to reveal that this pair of put-together, almost parental figures as at least as damaged and insecure as the rest. Meanwhile, Wesley Griffith has a whale of a time bringing to life the foolish, immature Chris – he’s the dumbest person in the room, the least capable at the job, and Griffith finds the comedy in every line he has.
Glenn Brannon, the nefarious and outwardly cruel boss, is played by Jack Bennett. While Bennett has a great deal of fun with his dialogue, the character feels less well-developed than the others, often leaving Bennett to just be menacing for the sake of being menacing, or hyperactive for the sake of an easy laugh. It’s a shame the character is a touch too one-note, but Bennett should be commended for his consistent energy in the role.
The cast is rounded out by Ella Blackburn’s professional debut, not only in a small supporting role towards the finale, but as the office cleaner who spends the interval tidying up the set and dancing along to the 80’s radio station playing during both the incoming and the interval itself. Blackburn is always in character as she cleans up for act two, and it’s unfortunate that many will miss this silent piece of comedy while getting a drink or using the facilities.
Aside from the lack of dimension given to the villain, Scooter Pietsch’s script is strong, well-paced and genuinely very funny. The two acts take two different approaches to theatrical comedy, with the first being a slow burn talk-heavy affair with the jokes and office banter flying fast, while the second is more chaotic and rooted in physical comedy and intense reactions. While I preferred the more full-on, laugh-out-loud humour of the second act, my partner leaned towards the wittier, more structured comedy of the first – both, we agreed, were funny, but your taste will impact which resonates more strongly with you.
Rachel Stone, working on both sets and costumes, clearly knows what an actual office looks like rather than having just seen them on TV or in other plays. An office worker myself, I immediately found the layout of the furniture – organised and facing towards a central point, but clearly squeezed in wherever a new desk could fit – familiar. Her attention to detail is to be commended, with slight differences in laptop choice reflecting the economic positions and personalities of the workers, and their clothing looking like the kind of thing real office workers would actually wear at work.
Mark Bell, director of the international hit The Play That Goes Wrong, brings the same manic energy that helped propel that project to such success to this production. His use of the space and the movements of the characters is a great help in introducing the audience to the long-standing dynamics of these colleagues, and under his hand, the set becomes almost another character in the violent, frantic action of the second act.
With a strong ensemble and deeply human, if deeply demented, characters, this production makes a promising debut for what could easily become another long-runner for Mark Bell. While far from perfect and certainly a potential target for criticism from a more “sophisticated” viewer (i.e., someone who thinks it’s too crude, too brash, or too loud), most will be won over by the variety and strength of the comedy, and the familiar charm of the protagonists.
Windfall plays in The Large at The Southwark Playhouse Borough until 11th March.
Tickets available at https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/windfall/
Photos by Pamela Raith