Louise Johns’ A Safe Place to Hide sees the banality of office life at Silchester Publishing Ltd disturbingly suspended upon the entrance of a gunman to the building. With only an office door and makeshift barricade between the seven team members and the madman outside, the staff’s vulnerability exposes the intimacies of each of their personal lives, guiding their understanding of one another’s psyche in a way that a 9-5 day could never achieve. Whilst the play provides a nuanced and psychologically-rooted exploration of workplace relations, its main pleasure lies in the comic ordinariness of Johns’ writing.
The stereotyping of workplace stock characters in the opening scene rings true of the niche, cynical humour we love in Peep Show and The Office. The awkward birthday boy Alex (Owen Saunders) keeps a low profile at work, sitting stiffly beneath his banner and showing subtle discomfort towards the attention he receives from bubbly Kathy (Lauren Kelly), the office chitchat. The actors’ attention to detail in characterisation is impeccable, particularly in the case of Kelly, whose indiscreet whispering as she asks her boss if everything’s alright work-wise displays an innocent blunder of a woman with great intentions but rather poor subtlety.
When the gunman enters the building, the sophistication of Johns’ comedy is not compensated. Rather than breaking into frenzy, the staff at Silchester orderly push tables against the door whilst the boss (Emma Powell) reminds them to watch the computers. Sheltering under the tables in their safe place to hide, there are no mad gestures of hopelessness or outpourings of affection. The characters continue to bicker, and when the sleazy office attention-seeker Phil (Nicholas Johnson) threatens to sacrifice himself to the gunman, his foolishness is dismissed as a ‘temper tantrum’ by Kathy. It’s a very British response to a near death situation.
Whilst the play provides a nuanced and psychologically-rooted exploration of workplace relations, its main pleasure lies in the comic ordinariness of Johns’ writing.
One simple gesture takes the script from comedy to poignancy as Hugh (Cyrill Apelo) silently takes a framed photo of his wife and children from his desk and gazes at it whilst still sheltered on the floor. The action not only creates a powerful visual image for the audience, but also for Hugh’s colleagues, and provokes them to speak about their loved ones and life outside of work. As more is revealed on each character’s background, Johns moulds their persona to be no longer a comic stereotype, but a maturely-constructed image of individuality and human experience, and the transition from lighthearted comedy to this level of depth is flawlessly smooth.
With well-balanced comedy, detailed characterization and an intriguing plot, A Safe Place to Hide is a fantastic new play that explores human relationships with touching poignancy.
(Image courtesy of LUU Open Theatre)