It’s set in an anodyne workplace with depressed staff under the sway of a patronising boss, but “The Office” it ain’t. “Mongrel Island” starts as a portrait of life (and, possibly, death) in a data input firm but winds up with torrential cascades of ballet pumps and an encounter with a giant shrimp by the name of Jimmy. So far so surreal, but although Ed Harris’s intriguing play has momentous passages, it lacks dramatic momentum.
Everything focuses around twentysomething Marie (outwardly calm but increasingly rattled Robyn Addison), who is initially the sanest of three office workers stuck in the daily groove of typing information into the computer system. On either side of designer Hayley Grindle’s horribly beige, featureless office sit the permanently unshaken up Elvis (Shane Zaza) – given to wordless agreement in the manner of his namesake “Urr-hurr-huh” – and faintly sleazy, middle-aged Only Joe (Simon Kunz) for whom annoyance is a modus vivendi.
Add a boss, Honey (precision engineered Golda Resheuvel), who couldn’t be further from her name, and the stage is set for a standard issue hideousness-of-the-workplace play. Harris, however, is intent upon disarming audiences and not just with his characters’ hidden desires. Not for nothing does Elvis quote e.e. cummings’s line: “There’s a hell of a good universe next door.”
As the office’s deadlines pile-up, so does the strangeness. Marie starts working nights in order to win time off for family reasons – her gently played phone conversations with her distant father have a touch of true sadness. But the more tired she grows from overwork, the more bizarre the action becomes in Steve Marmion’s crisply staged production.
Fantastic (in every sense) relationships start to form, not least between Marie and a little old mittel-European peasant cleaner (beamingly expressive Joanna Holden) who bustles around at night communicating solely with the word “Pippop.”
The more bizarre and rebellious the dreamily non-naturalistic encounters grow, with stage imagery to match, the more expectations rise that the seemingly diffuse depictions will somehow coalesce. Frustratingly, they fail to do so. Harris may be arguing that everyone is stuck in their own worlds that collide but never connect, but without a more unified way of showing this, energy subsides and the play falls prey to the deflating syndrome of having closing scenes for each character, each of which feels like the play’s ending but isn’t.
“Mongrel Island” suffers from a lack of structural control and drive, but Harris’s switches between satire and tenderness are impressively idiosyncratic. His quirky handling of subcutaneous pain lurking beneath outward display mark him out as a talent with potential.