If you’ve ever cursed Human Resources for making you work with such unreasonable people, you should see what Thomas has to put up with! Mike Bartlett’s 2013 tale of Darwinian competition in the workplace is brought to life in this slick and enjoyably nasty production from yt2 Plus. It’s impressive in its sharp and glossy malice, though needs a little more nuance to get to the heart of Bartlett’s text.
Three colleagues await their boss’s arrival, knowing that one of them is about to lose their job. From the off it looks like Thomas (Peter Ward) is on his way out, and his two flamboyantly hostile colleagues are determined to give him a final push on his way towards unemployment.
Mike Cottrell as the comprehensively awful Tony and Becky Mills as a commanding Isobel are both excellent bullies, superbly entertaining in just how horrible they can be. Ward as Thomas seems to have been plucked straight from the school playground judging from his confused and petty responses to the hostility of his more savvy colleagues.
The fact that Ward makes it so easy to look down on Thomas is part of the point; Bartlett is trying to tell us that secretly we all enjoy a bullfight and the destruction of society’s weaker members, and this production subtly succeeds in making the audience complicit in Thomas’s demise. When Carter enters, played with cutting bluntness by the physically imposing Ryan Harris, Thomas has never looked smaller, and his fight for survival becomes even more desperate.
Thomas is a wannabe bully too: he’s just not very good at it, dishing out some sexist slurs to Isobel because she seems an easier target than Tony. Ward is good at maintaining the balancing act between sympathetic victim and unlikeable human being, but more depth could have been added to Tony and Isobel’s obnoxiousness. Tony routinely makes things up about himself to convince Thomas he leads an improbably glamorous lifestyle, whilst Isobel has to put up with misogynistic remarks from both Thomas and her boss, and may or may not have had a traumatic childhood. In their own ways they’re just as vulnerable as Thomas.
There’s real weakness at the heart of all the characters, along with motives to be so vicious towards the more obviously weak Thomas they’d rather not admit to themselves. Glimpses of this from Mills and Cottrell would have added another level of meaning to the piece. Sometimes the action could have also done with being a touch more visceral; the delivery from Mills, Cottrell and Harris is so enjoyably smug that we laugh at their audacity rather than feel the brunt of their insults.
This is a very credible production though and immensely enjoyable to watch. Director Joanne Denson nails Bartlett’s mixture of comedy and aggression, and her predatory blocking brings out the sense of brutal natural selection in the corporate environment. If you want to see quite how terrible people can be to each other, Bull is the place to go.