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Bull and Contractions

by on 14 October 2021

Job’s Worth

Bull and Contractions

by Mike Bartlett

The Questors (Double Bill) at the Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 16th October

Review by Nick Swyft

Tonight Questors put on a double bill of hour-long plays by controversial modern playwright Mike Bartlett, about two very different forms of workplace bullying.  In both, the setting is a high pressure sales environment, where making the numbers underpins everything, and job security is scant to non-existent.

The first play, Contractions, is a two-hander, featuring Alison Griffin as an anonymous manager, and Anne Marie Ryan as Kate, a new recruit into her team.  It takes the form of a series of mini appraisals in which it becomes clear that the manager has issues of her own, zeroing in on Kate’s personal relationships with her team.  These interviews become increasingly intrusive, and at first the questions asked were very funny, partly because the audience could see how outrageous they were.

Many companies, especially these days, have an ever thickening rule book covering staff behaviour, which often stems from legal compliance, and is extended from there to suit the prejudices of the people in charge.  This play highlights how such rules can be exploited to victimise individuals and break them down.  Kate is eventually driven insane by the Manager’s creeping control of her personal life.  The scene where she digs up her dead baby, bringing him in to the office in a shoe box to prove he is actually dead, may stretch credibility, but is chilling.  The end, very reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, is more so.

At first it seems hard to see what a pair of competent actors can make of the dialogues, but Alison Griffin’s deadpan representation of a pitiless manager throughout, is unnervingly realistic.  Anne Marie Ryan had much more to work in portraying Kate’s descent into madness.  It might be easy to ‘ham’ this up, but this was a measured and very effective performance.

The second play, Bull, features three salespeople about to be culled to two.  These were Thomas (Adam Hampton-Matthews), Isobel (Claire Durrant) and Tony (Joshua Perry).  From the outset it was clear that the loser was always going to be Thomas.  The play might have been more effective if this had been revealed to us a little more slowly, but as it was we are left asking why Thomas was there in the first place, which left the play unbalanced.

Tony and Isobel pick on Thomas relentlessly criticising his appearance, and generally hazing him.  Claire Durrant and Joshua Perry portray shallow playground bullies extremely well.  This is like a bullfight, where the playwright, Mike Bartlett, apparently got his inspiration, and Tom behaves very much like a maddened bull.  In the end, Isobel actually acts the toreador, goading Tom into trying to physically attack her, sidestepping and making fun of him every time.

Tom himself comes across as an irritating character, and in the current ‘no excuses’ culture, seeing him attack Isobel makes uncomfortable watching.  Although he is the victim, he has brought much of it on himself, and (like the bull) charges headlong into their little traps every time.

When their boss, Carter (David Erdos) makes his appearance, we see what a lousy people manager he is.  Everything’s about him, and although Tom fights back at this point, he doesn’t look for any underlying issues that might need resolving.  He simply spouts homilies about ‘survival of the fittest’.  All he sees is that they aren’t working well as a team, and although, perhaps surprisingly, all of them are making their numbers, he has to lose one of them.  Anyone who has ever worked in a sales team will have met him!

To call this play enjoyable is to miss the point.  We are being made aware of the destructive aspects of bullying to the extent that suicide and or murder are credible outcomes in these situations.

Both plays come highly recommended for employment ministers, business leaders and HR professionals!

Nick Swyft, October 2021

Photography by Jane Arnold-Forster

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