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Review of Bull by Mike Bartlett

Directed by Rob Widdicombe
Review by Christopher Cullen

If you had ever forgotten that office politics can be hell, Bull provides an excellent reminder.

The action focuses on three young, highly ambitious employees jostling to keep their jobs in the knowledge that one must be made redundant. Tony, played by Dean Louis Brown, and Isobel, played by Sarah Kidney, are like animals scenting blood when faced with a weaker member of the herd in Richard Stewart’s Thomas. The two work together to wind Thomas up to a fever pitch by playing on all his insecurities. His social background, his sexual abilities, his work competence, even his dress sense come in for mocking scrutiny in exchanges that provoke a range of strong reactions in the audience from embarrassment to hilarity, to disgust and disbelief at their calculated cruelty.

With her bright red hair and elegant clothes, Sarah Kidney knows just when to attack and when to pull back, pretending sympathy with Thomas in order to get more information for use in the battle. When her character claims to have been the victim of sexual abuse, she treads a fine line with great skill; we think we are being manipulated, but we’re never quite sure.

Dean Louis Brown convincingly captures the swagger of Tony: a character described as “a fucking predator” and “a sheer muscular wanker”, who runs marathons to get sex with the charity workers. In a strange and uncomfortable exchange, Tony demonstrates his alpha male status through showing off his torso and trying to get Thomas to put his face against his naked chest. Dean Brown shows us the arrogance and bravura of Tony but also manages to suggest some depth behind the male display.

Richard Stewart inhabits the part of Thomas completely. As the battle of words moves back and forth, he traces the ever-changing emotions of the character with great clarity and understanding. He is certainly no pushover, giving as good as he gets. It is to the actor’s credit that although he never plays the victim, it’s clear to the audience from the start that he’s never going to survive in the hard world of the play.

The fourth character is Carter, played by Maxine Edwards, the manager who haunts the earlier scenes but doesn’t arrive until about half way through the play. When she finally appears you understand why she is so feared by the other three. Played with a granite-like toughness, she is nevertheless a very real and recognisable type, totally in control and utterly without sympathy for her poor employees.

Throughout the play, the characters weave together an intricate dance of power play where all the moves seemed totally natural, and every twist and turn of the exchanges is captured in a very convincing way. This was excellent ensemble playing, with actors listening and responding in the moment, and in the intimate venue of the bar the audience were left with no means of escape from the cruelties the characters inflict on each other.

This is Rob Widdicombe’s directorial debut at the Bromley Little Theatre and it is a very assured piece of work. I particularly enjoyed the audience being brought into the world of the play from the start through being giving a visitor’s pass at the entrance, with dreary staff announcements being made before the action begins. Naomi Bailey’s set was simple and effective for such a small space, and the use of the colour red through the set: costumes, hair and even the programme; was a clever way of underpinning the anger at the heart of the drama.

This was a highly provocative and absorbing evening in the theatre that provoked strong reactions in the audience. Even the extremely uncomfortable folding chairs in the bar (who wants to lean back after all?) could not dampen our enjoyment. The only thing the play lacked was a sympathetic character, but for that we must blame the playwright, as the production was excellent.

~Christopher Cullen~