Dirty Work – Review

By: Erin O’Flaherty

Indian Ink’s Dirty Work: An Ode to Joy is a funny, quirky and wholesome investigation of the nature and meaning of work in the modern day.

It is early morning in the office space of ‘Sisyphus’. A cleaner (Catherine Yates) discards the copious rubbish left in the almost garishly coloured cubicles (designed by John Verryt) while singing Lorde’s Royals to herself. She picks up a beautiful scarf left by an employee and swans around; ‘let me live that fantasy’. Then she is swiftly interrupted by the office manager (Justin Rogers) who has called everyone in early. Soon our chorus of office workers file in and take their seats – a literal chorus played by a different choir each night.

What follows is an absurd comedy in which the manager, Neil, tries to keep cool while navigating a series of escalating challenges, beginning with the sudden disappearance of all the computers in the office and an urgent request from the existentially dissatisfied CEO of the company, VJ Kumari (voiced by Jacob Rajan). Neil’s composure is further knocked off balance by his awkwardly budding romance with the headstrong Zara (Tessa Rao) and the presence of the cleaner, who becomes increasingly embroiled in the absurdity.

We find our protagonists frustrated in some way. Zara wishes to travel in order to break free of the mundane and take back a sense of control over her life. Her plans were thwarted by Covid and now she finds herself situated in the Sisyphean grind of the everyday. 

VJ laments his unhappiness despite his success – that the corporate ladder is no ladder at all, but a hamster wheel that keeps on turning. He has walked the path of the model minority and yet it’s brought him no real satisfaction. 

Neil seems in denial of his own frustrations. He idolizes the corporate hierarchy and the ‘purpose’ that work supposedly brings to life, though it is clear from the outside that this vague and jargon-filled finance work is nothing short of alienating, disconnected from any real sense of purpose. Neil’s unhappiness leaks out in his angry outbursts and anxious body. Pitch-perfect physical work from Rogers.

Yet all their woes pale next to the cleaner’s, who must work multiple jobs to support her family and do the ‘dirty work’ that no one else will. A pointed class comparison is drawn here, in which Zara’s inability to travel is the problem of the privileged and VJ’s contemplative depression a luxury only the wealthy can afford. By contrast, the cleaner (portrayed with verve by Yates) is down-to-earth and embraces what happiness she can find in her day with heartwarming authenticity. Fittingly, we eventually find out her name is Joy.

The script (written by Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan) is smart with a solid story. Lewis’ direction sees the space used with satisfying precision, syncing with the melodic meter of the chorus.

The decision to use a choir was an excellent one – their vocals add a depth and texture to the piece, and the choice of a different choir every night who have not read the script is not just a fun gimmick.

This diverse group of non-actors can react to the events of the play with genuine discomfort, and they evoke a sense of the everyman – they really could be just an average group of office workers. The chorus too, find themselves inside the absurd, with nothing else to do but follow the directions set out on their sheet music. As Jacob Rajan says in his notes, they have no idea of the job they do or the story they are in.

Dirty Work critiques the capitalist system that renders many of our lives alienating. At the same time, its post-Covid setting suggests a tribute to essential workers and those without the time or capacity for such political ponderings. However, Dirty Work’s capitalist critique never seems to come fully to fruition. It provides no answers about the nature of work, nor any alternatives to the system it characterises as absurd, and I thought that Neil and Zara’s respective arcs were wrapped up a little too easily.Catherine Yates is dressed in a cleaners outfit standing confused as balls of paper fall around her

What we do get, however, is Joy finally taking some much-deserved time off. We end with the image of her relaxing in the garden as Royals is reprised – a perfect and satisfying fantasy come true.

While Dirty Work might not contain any call to revolution, what it does privilege is the ability to courageously find joy in the face of the absurd. This, after all, is what Camus was trying to uncover when he said, we must imagine Sisyphus happy. 

It is the power of joy – wherever we can snatch it – to provide true meaning to our existence. And Dirty Work excels at joy. From its wonderful music, including the clever reworking of the lyrics to Beethoven’s famous piece, to its very human characters and fun physical sequences.

It is a truly heartwarming and well-made show that I guarantee will make you smile.