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TNC Archive 2015

The Waiting Room
by John Bowen
Dir. Jenny Eastop
Originally Published 2015

It wouldn’t be the West End if there wasn’t a good selection of plays being revived for fresh audiences. It is easy to forget some of the smaller classic and powerfully emotive plays that that now sit on shelves gathering dust, but every now and then a revival comes about that really gives you pause for thought. Director Jenny Eastop’s revival John Bowen’s one act play The Waiting Room from the 1970s relaunches Above the Arts Theatre Lunchtime Theatre season.


A woman is shown in to a stuffy waiting room and is told by an orderly to wait. Pacing the floor and unable to sit down due to the dust she’s eventually joined by a man, dressed in a nice suit who, nervously, is shown into the room and also told to wait by the orderly. After a short silence introductions are made and a conversation between the two ensues with Harriet, Beth Eyre, convinced she knows Paul, Mark Rush, from somewhere. As their forced time together continues to stretch past the original time they had been given it appears that the two do share something in common and are now face to face for the first time. 


John Bowen’s one act play is steeped in the language of the time it was written in and provides a great starting block for both Rush and Eyre. There is a subtly to the text that leaves the audience slightly on edge as to what is actually happening, the sinister undertone in the very first moments of the play creates a variety of plausible possibilities. Bowen masks this subtly with a bold, strong and determined female character who manages to retain her strength throughout. The beauty in the language and confidence in how he has written Harriet is remarkable and he gives her some great comedic lines that flow more naturally than written.


With just 40 minutes to work with it would be a challenge for any director to do justice to this work and to maintain the tension, humour and above all the honesty of the piece. Eastop has achieved something special with The Waiting Room which will encourage audiences and theatremakers alike to look back at some of these forgotten short plays. The set makes great use of the Above the Arts space which resembles any other pub theatres spaces but with a more natural rustic feel that fits the production perfectly. The cleaner and the orderly are additional characters that the play doesn’t need and reducing, or even removing, these parts would allow the audience more time with Harriet and Paul


Eastop continues to get the very best out of her actors and it shows through both Rush and Eyre performances. The tension that is built feels genuine, these characters are people who have experienced heartbreak but a powerlessness at the same time that has further conflicted their emotions. Neither really knows why they are in The Waiting Room and the more they talk the more the audience begins to question the same.


One has a great deal of sympathy for both the playwright and his character Paul as what Bowen had created back in the 1970s was both groundbreaking and controversial. During the slow reveal I was struck by how completely natural Rush was as Paul and careful consideration has been given to not make him sound modern or overly confident and he very much remains a complicated, shy, young man. Eyre is a revelation and fully taps into the depth of Harriet, portraying her with brilliant zeal and stunning assurance. Every word hits you and though she has a huge protective guard around her you are still able to feel her pain and sadness.  

"We are forced to take on this extra part of the play and yet have no way to confront it ourselves, we, much like Harriet and Paul, become somewhat powerless to deal with what we discover."

Bowen’s insight into the delicate nature of love, fear, loss, and confusion is remarkable and he does all this with class and taste which ensures that the purity of his characters is never spoilt. The voices he gives Harriet and Paul stops them being victims even if that is, for now, how they see themselves. One of the plays most powerful aspects comes from what we do not see, hear or even begin to understand. We are forced to take on this extra part of the play and yet have no way to confront it ourselves, we, much like Harriet and Paul, become somewhat powerless to deal with what we discover.


The Waiting Room captures a time that seems so close but incredibly distant and offers two characters that have been thoughtfully realised and brought to life with the care they needed to retain their emotional pull. Within just 40 minutes The Waiting Room does more than most modern feature plays could ever hope to achieve.

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