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by on 15 March 2023



by Mike Bartlett

Teddington Theatre Club at the Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre until 18th March

Review by Brent Muirhouse

The Teddington Theatre Club’s production of Bull, by Mike Bartlett, was described in the programme notes as ‘a razor-sharp play about the fine line between office politics and playground bullying’.  In reality, the hellish situation in the play is an extreme stylisation of the most exceedingly profit-driven and cut-throat workplace imaginable, and the nature of the darkest form of capitalism.

This adaptation takes place entirely in a single room, where three colleagues, Tony, Isobel, and Thomas are waiting for a meeting with their boss, Carter.  The stage is designed to resemble a corporate boardroom, with the audience given visitor badges and seated on three sides of the stage, giving the impression of being part of the meeting.  It was an unexpected set-up to bring most of the audience’s own visible nervousness from sitting so close to the stage – and almost within the play – to create an appropriate energy for Bull to unfold.

This clever staging made the viewing of the play an immersive and uncomfortable experience, as from the outset it is clear that the meeting is not going to be a pleasant one.  The three colleagues sharing the stage in the first minutes have been told that there is only room for two of them in the company and that the meeting is to decide which one will be made redundant.  What follows is a tense, sometimes comic and often brutal battle for survival in the workplace.

The play is written as a dark and biting satire on the cut-throat world of corporate culture, where profit is king and loyalty is a weakness.  The characters are all caricatures of corporate archetypes, with Ben Clare’s performance as the bullied Thomas the standout, which conveyed his true and growing state of apoplexy and desperation.  Ian Kinane‘s performance as Tony captured the epitome of smarm, and Rachel Burnham’s portrayal of Isobel is equally impressive, conveying the character’s inner ugliness and ruthlessness.

Completing the four-actor play was Juanita Al-Dahhan as the boss Carter, a role which was much awaited in the play and, although the script gave very little to work with, was hammed up to almost the level of pantomime.  The acting on display was highly commendable throughout, yet in some ways the actors were let down by the fact they had such parodies of characters to embody, leaving little they could do to really make the characters their own.

It has to be noted that some of the language used in the play is needlessly disparaging, particularly in the insults relating to disability hurled by the characters at Thomas, which could have been removed from the script.  Whilst much of this may have been intended as reflection of a toxic culture of corporate politics, terms were dated and offensive, detracting from the quality of the actors and undermining any artistic ambiguity and discussion points over whether the actions of the characters seemed moral.  Simply put, it was far too easy to empathise with one of the characters and far too easy to find the rest of the cast abhorrent as individuals.  It felt a missed opportunity that there was little to study other than three hysterically awful individuals in one specifically hysterical office, rather than a wider indictment of a darker side of capitalism and office politics as a concept.

Overall, Bull was a relatively unique and full-on set up for a play that became increasing difficult to watch as the characters played out a dystopian scene from the cutting room floor of The Apprentice, though (probably thankfully) Sir Alan Sugar was nowhere to be seen on this occasion.  Indeed, it is a credit to the cast that they created this unease from the bounded characters they had in this dramatic workplace, and as a study of the dynamics of a dysfunctional office team it served its purpose and was carried out expertly.  Detracting from this was a sense that the play and the script itself felt confused with a dialogue seeming to far too hastily labelled bad and good at the individual level, which felt far removed from any examining of the evil of capitalism which was purported to be the bigger moral message of Bull.  Perhaps this was a deliberate debate left for the audience to ponder: is it the individual influencing the behaviour of the system, or the system influencing the behaviour of the individual?  I considered this ambiguity uncertain, but on the strength of the performances of these hateable characters alone I was certain that I didn’t want to work in the team at the corporate centre of Bull, as I escaped the Hampton Hill Theatre to the relative safety of the streetlights of suburbia on an unambiguously chilly evening.

Brent Muirhouse, March 2023

Photography by David Shortland

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