I’ve seen some odd things happen at Official London Theatre towers over the years, but nothing to match the borderline psychotic goings-on in the workplace in Ed Harris’s Mongrel Island.
Everything begins normally enough, with the office’s three data entry workers – Marie, Only Joe and Elvis – monotonously tapping out the rhythm of the keyboard jockey. But when Marie begins working longer hours, everything becomes a little weird, a little fantastical, a little dream-like. It is suddenly very hard to define where reality ends and imagination begins.
With its single, identikit office location and small group of characters, Mongrel Island has a sitcom sensibility, but, with its stories of towering prawns and Eskimos on the run, is more Mighty Boosh than My Family.
However, to write it off as a stage sitcom is to do it a disservice. Here, the surreal and absurd grows out of a very real pain. Each character has their own burden to bear, their own tragedy with which they must cope, whether it be Shane Zaza’s endearingly nervous Elvis with his memories of creatures from his childhood, the dislocated, angry Only Joe (Simon Kunz), dominating boss Honey (Golda Rosheuvel) or Robyn Addison’s Marie, who is desperate to earn enough brownie points to take time off and help her Dad clear out her dead mother’s belongings.
In its darkly comic way, Mongrel Island touches on the monotony and escape of work, colleague relationships, mortality and escape but with a bizarreness that delights and dumbfounds and a hidden sweetness that occasionally catches you by surprise. Office cleaner Pippop, a tiny aged immigrant who speaks very little English, puts one in mind of classic film Don’t Look Now, but holds none of the ominous threat. Instead, she is like a magic-less fairy godmother, bringing a warm comfort to Marie’s long evenings. Yet even she has her own escapist fantasy.
Amid all of the blurring between the real and the imagined as workload stress piles up and the workers become less and less attached to the real world, one thing is sure, after seeing Mongrel Island I shan’t be working late in the office for a very long time.