Bull

Mon 22nd – Sat 27th August 2016

reviews

Naoise Murphy

at 08:45 on 23rd Aug 2016

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Mike Bartlett’s ‘Bull’ is an uncomfortable play. It leaves the audience feeling like terrible people as they exit the theatre, faith in humanity destroyed. The Rude Mechanicals Amateur Dramatics give a solid interpretation, with good performances, but could definitely have teased out the themes of self-interest and bullying to a greater level of complexity.

Three people meet in a workplace. One of them is about to lose their job, and this meeting with the boss will determine who. Mind games and psychological bullying ensue as Isobel and Tony join forces to torment the hapless Thomas.

The naturalistic staging chosen by directors Priya Manwaring and Nick Fanthorpe works well overall with the office setting. The cast are already pacing as the audience enter, making it seem like the directors are intending to create a fly-on-the-wall sort of experience for the audience. In practice however, this leads to some difficulties in staging. Actors ended up standing side-on or even facing away from the audience at several points, totally obscuring facial expressions. The play feels quite static - a little more movement would easily inject more life into the performance.

The actors all work well together. Their style is realistic and engaging, although there is a little too much unnecessary and distracting gesticulation. Alice Brittain, playing Isobel, gives the standout performance of the show. She has a talent for suggesting layers of complex personality under a cold, hard exterior. The audience are never allowed to get inside Isobel’s head. She intrigues and delights with her icy stare and vicious psychological games.

Di Ypma’s portrayal of Tony plays off stereotypes of the rich, arrogant City boy to great effect. One gets the sense that this is someone who has been acting cruelly to people all his life, and thinks of it as normal. Thomas, the prickly, unlikeable and ultimately pathetic victim is ably portrayed by George Ferguson. Rather cleverly, the audience are not invited to identify or sympathise too much with him – he is also pretty horrible at the start of the play – implicating us in his torment and leaving us regretting our cheap laughs by the end.

The tone of the piece turns startlingly dark in the last few minutes. It comes as something of a shock – whether this is intentional is open to question, but the play would appreciate some of the dark comedy from earlier in the script pushed further for the purposes of foreshadowing. While not a riveting performance, ‘Bull’ is a worth a watch. It is a somewhat painful experience, but for all the right reasons.

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Ryan Bradley

at 11:57 on 23rd Aug 2016

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Exploring office harassment in a brutal, nihilistic manner, ‘Bull’ is dominated by its jibes and insults. As a whole, these are mostly well-written, being pragmatic and witty without sacrificing verisimilitude. Indeed, Mike Bartlett’s polished script efficiently mixes quick, amusing raillery with a stark, convincing realism. This applies more to the dialogue, the plot’s cruelty occasionally borders on the exaggerated. Hyperbole and intensity are still valuable tools though, the shift from sour ‘banter’ to malign torment being seamless and shocking.

The capable cast do well with this material, giving performances which are appropriately understated. Skilfully embodying their characters, each actor brings something interesting to the production. The victim of callous taunts and absurd mind games, George Ferguson’s nervous, flustered Thomas is likeable and sympathetic. His scourges, the patronising, penetrating Isobel (Alice Brittan) and the smug, subtly menacing Tony (Di Ypma) deliver their lines with a light touch. The laughter their teasing may elicit from the audience is uncomfortable, but deliberately so. ‘Bull’ forces spectators to mentally participate in Thomas’s destruction by virtue of its serviceable comedy. Laughter becomes complicity, instilling an uneasy guilt to the very fact of our own observation. This feeling pervades the whole show, raising it above the terrain of mere satire.

However, the production is not free from fault. Nick Fanthorpe, also the co-director, seems too youthful for Carter, the trio’s nonchalant boss. The part is obviously written for an older, teacherly figure, but Fanthorpe plays it with enough authority that it is never a massive detriment. Alongside Priya Manwaring, his direction is suitable too, never relying on cheap tricks or showy displays to take focus away from the acting and writing, knowing distraction would detract from the play’s strengths. A later scene which involves some physicality is a little stilted, but the source does not offer much of an alternative. The boxing analogy, made clear in a ring-like stage in the original production at Sheffield Crucible, is less overt here, maybe removing some of the thematic explanation for the verbal ‘punches’. Having won ‘Best New Play’ at The National Theatre Awards, the piece is a well-known work which is respectfully rendered here.

The mean-spirited nature of the show turns comedy into sobriety. Both are balanced in the same second, employing black humour to produce something which is simultaneously entertaining and excruciating.

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