This article is from 2008.
As the latest large-scale, high camp extravaganza hits the Fringe, director Cal McCrystal hands Steve Cramer a plastic cup of warm white wine and invites him to laugh his head off and dance his pants down at the Office Party
The medieval feast of fools was an event where established hierarchies were overturned, sexual and social proprieties were transgressed and the everyday laws of the culture were suspended. It’s the subject of academic study all over Europe, where various versions of the same festival were practiced. The idea of making the village idiot king for a day was common to many of them, and few eschewed the benefits of the good old-fashioned booze-up.
Historians are fascinated by such phenomena, but why trawl through all those parish registers when the same event is mounted all over the UK every year? The modern day office party is a living, breathing manifestation of the carnivalesque feast of fools.
Whether the office party represents a steam valve for the lessoning of workplace tensions that build up through the year, or simply add to those tensions the following year is a moot point. But there can be no doubt that office workers denied the Bacchanalia offered by these occasions might provoke workplace discontent on a scale not seen the General Strike of 1926.
Given the scale of the phenomenon, sooner or later, there was bound to be a Fringe event that reflected its dynamics. Office Party is a large-scale theatrical blow-out, which proved a roaring success when mounted at London’s Barbican last Christmas, at the height of the workplace celebration season. The hype surrounding the show is on a par with that of The Donkey Show, the Fringe extravaganza of 2000, which reworked the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a 70s disco context to splendid effect.
While the sense of celebration which propelled The Donkey Show to its success is also a feature of Office Party, Cal McCrystal, the director behind both shows, is keen to emphasise the differences. ‘I’m told The Donkey Show was the biggest success in Fringe history and I can believe that,’ he says. ‘I used to go to the show every night – it was really good. But the characters in the show weren’t interacting with the audience in a very open way; they were very characterised, dressed up as creatures and so on. They also had a storyline to play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The show was contingent on how the audience reacted on the night, and some nights it really took off. Office Party really allows audiences to be in the show more.’
This is the key difference for McCrystal. In Office Party, each member of the audience is allocated to a department of the show’s fictional firm. After that, a good deal of the fun is improvisational. ‘If you’re an executive you get champagne, and if you’re not you get a tequila slammer,’ McCrystal chuckles. ‘We could have turned it into a kind of Tony and Tina’s wedding thing where you just watch these characters playing out their lives – it’s not like that, though, the audience really are the party, we’re the hosts of the party, and there are a lot of really fun surprises along the way.’
He continues: ‘I’ve always thought that when you go to the theatre probably 20 per cent of the audiences would rather be on the stage. The rest are just happy to sit back and watch. We like to think we cater to both of those groups. The audience really don’t know who is part of the cast and who are the audience. Sometimes the real stars of the show are really drunk, excitable, hilariously bombastic members of the public.’
But, given that Office Party is so true to life in its look and feel, isn’t there a danger that audiences will simply be left recalling with shame the cringe factors associated with their own real office celebrations? McCrystal maintains that, through the artifice of theatre, it’s possible to create the perfect office party, because this show can represent all the benefits, without the drawbacks of the real thing. ‘This is the funny thing: because the audience doesn’t take it personally, you can enjoy that cringe factor. You’re not stuck with Maureen from Accounts all night. When we did the show at Christmas, we got a lot of people saying, “If only our office party was like this”, but it never really can be. People know each other too well to let go in the way they want to in those circumstances; we create a situation where people can really let go, but also be safe, because they’re detached, so there really is no boundary.’
Inevitably, the impact of this piece depends heavily on its staging. Perhaps surprisingly, it is in the Appleton Tower – that monolithic piece of 60s architecture which operates as a multifunctional teaching space for Edinburgh University – that McCrystal has found the perfect backdrop to his show. ‘You won’t recognise the place when you go to see the show,’ he assures me. ‘I really like that space; we’re doing certain transformative things to it. Most companies, if they don’t have their office parties around the water cooler, do take companies away to somewhere elaborate. With Appleton Tower, we’re doing the same thing as we did with our show at the Barbican, we’re turning it into one of those huge corporate entertainment areas, like you get in 80s hotels on the M4. We’re using the balconies – these big places can be used so well. There’s a half dozen spaces, some are normally academic lecture rooms or computer rooms – we use all of those in the show. We even have a special room called the Sexual Harassment Litigation Free Zone. It’s kind of a nookie room, it’s all cushioned out, and people can go there for a snog or a shag or whatever they want.’
This, along with a cast made up of experienced Fringe comics, from Christopher Green (Tina C) to La Clique’s Ursula Martinez, experienced improvisers all, looks like a formula for success. ‘Some of our cast have been to quite a few office parties as corporate entertainers. They’re in a position to observe all that from the outside. You do see all the people who’ve been wearing suits all year suddenly go absolutely crazy when the company’s paying for something free. We’ve got a pretty good handle on what these parties are like, but if it takes a different direction than usual, the show is not so themed that we can’t go with that.’
All this, and an all-night party ticket. The feast of fools lives on with a vengeance!
Office Party, Udderbelly’s Pasture, Appleton Tower, 0844 545 8252, 3–25 Aug, 8pm, £12–£18 (£10). Preview 2 Aug, £6.