Water cooler politics are hung out to dry in Mike Bartlett’s short, slick and emotionally unflinching new play in which two members of a sales team facing possible redundancy deploy every trick in the bully’s rule-book to ensure that a third colleague is fired when they appear in front of the company’s head honcho.
Eleanor Matsuura (Isobel), Adrian Lukis (Carter), Sam Troughton (Thomas) and Adam James (Tony) in Bull at the Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield Photo: Tristram Kenton
Right from the opening verbal exchanges it is pretty obvious that booted and suited Isobel and Mark are poised to gang up against fall guy Thomas in order to get him sacked. Bartlett’s writing escalates this triangular relationship with forensic precision, gradually raising the stakes from jokey competitive fun-poking until they reach a bleak and brutish tipping point where everything the two human attack dogs say or do is aimed at emasculating, humiliating, undermining or threatening their target.
Aside from the timeliness of the subject matter, there’s no mistaking the immediacy of Bartlett’s unsettling conclusion: that bullying is not just nasty and vile but a natural Darwinian survival reflex where life’s winners instinctively know how to thrive and the losers inevitably end up floating in the gutter.
The production delivers a decisive punch too, partly through the knockout acting but also because director Clare Lizzimore and designer Soutra Gilmour ensure that we are all in danger of becoming an accomplice in Thomas’ fate. By reconfiguring the Crucible’s studio space into a kind of corporate boxing ring with the audience standing around the sides and perched on tiered seating, it’s hard not to back the triumphant winners and avoid being sucked into their bullying mindset.