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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Dining al Desko Preview – ‘a tale of high treachery and highlighters’

An acutely observed examination of inane office politics, despair, and social media

I first saw Dining Al Desko six months ago. A tale of high treachery and highlighters set in an office, it was expertly performed by Julia Pilkington as receptionist Julie in a distinctly un-theatrical room in Keble. It has grown considerably since then, with the addition of Christopher Page as Tom the accountant with another, interlinking monologue for a single performance at the Old Fire Station in January, and then a run at the prestigious National Student Drama Festival in March. It won considerable plaudits there, and so it should be no surprise to see it returning to Oxford for a run at the Burton Taylor Studio this week, before it heads up the te Edinburgh Fringe for August. This latest run introduces office intern Trish, played by Kate Weir.

This is a masterclass in comic character study. The rehearsal I was shown featured only Weir as intern come social media star Trish, but, having witnessed the previous runs of this show, it is clear that all three actors will be on top comedic form. Pilkington is desperately funny as Julie, a receptionist teetering on the edge of despair as she fights for her job. She frequently breaks the fourth wall to discuss the high politics of the office with the audience, but what’s amusing here is that the politics of this office isn’t high. It’s low to middling at best, and Pilkington does very well to find consistent moments of hilarity in this inanity.

Page is on equally good form as Tom, a rather serious accountant who works in the basement and has secrets to hide. I attended a rehearsal with Weir and director Philippa Lawford, and it was abundantly clear just how much everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Weir revels in the obnoxiousness of Trish’s vacuous behaviour, and maintains poise as she stretches, squats, and then offloads upon the audience her treatise on life:  “One word. Social Media. Not even one word literally two”. Weir handles the script with utter conviction, imbuing Trish’s utter triviality with a fresh comic impetus.

For the run this week, these three monologues have been spliced together to create an intertwining narrative which will be told within an hour. Alastair Curtis has crafted a very fine script indeed. It is peppered with jibes and witticisms that provide a constant stream of material for the three actors, all of whom possess considerable comic talent and timing. Importantly, Curtis succeeds where other comic scripts so often fail in his ability to add depth to the undeniably funny facade. Because there is something more here, something that is evident perhaps in Julie’s quiet despair, and it doesn’t feel gratuitous or bolted on to the comedy in some ramshackle attempt to give meaning to the humour. This is a richly detailed examination of character in the pressure cooker office environment. Acutely observed, it attends to the supposedly unimportant with nuance and skill, and is not to be missed.

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