The Darwinian Modern Office: Bull At The Young Vic Reviewed
The lights are low, Eye of the Tiger is blaring, the audience round the ring are swaying and braying — we're not at a boxing match but in the malleable Maria studio at the Young Vic. Mike Bartlett's Bull is back and it's as brilliantly brutish as before.
Hats off to Soutra Gilmour and the design team for yet another innovative use of this small space. The Maria has been a mirrored glass box in Caryl Churchill's play about cloning, a Soviet submarine in Kursk — now it's a boxing ring/conference room hybrid.
A dull blue carpet and a water cooler are all that's needed to sketch the stage as an office. The prosaic familiarity of the scene tussles with the elating anthems: that daily internal wrestle between 'can't be arsed' and 'must do better!' We stand and sit in the round, surrounding and looking down on the cast in a clever staging of corporate paranoia and victimisation.
What's frightening about this play is how easy it is to laugh at the sweating, spluttering Thomas (Marc Wootton), mercilessly mocked and messed with by his colleagues Isobel (Susannah Fielding) and 'sheer muscular wanker' Tony (Max Bennett). The premise is that of The Apprentice: one of them will be fired. And though the ring makes us crave a fair fight, we know in our stomachs that this is not how it works.
Isobel and Tony wear permanent expressions of amused disdain as they circle Thomas like vultures, armed with plastic blue folders and unwavering self-assurance. We join them in pitying their erstwhile colleague in his 'cheap suit' with his 'strangely shaped shoulders' and manner of 'an autistic penguin'; we see him rise to their bait — he just makes it too easy.
Parallels and allusions are laid on thickly but for the most part effectively. Boss Carter (Nigel Lindsay) generously explains downsizing as 'a cull to save the species from extinction'. Taunts about childhood misery and school-time bullying are frequent. A stunt with a pair of glasses calls out loudly to the torture of Piggy in Lord of the Flies.
Although at times extremely funny, the viciousness of Bull contrasts it sharply with the cringe comedy of The Office or Office Space. We'd love to see someone do an office comedy that lands in the middle of this spectrum, to have the guts to capture the mediocre but well-meaning boss, the passive-aggressive but sympathetic colleagues, the petty jealousy and one-upmanship but also the little victories of daily life. But for a heightened, operatic vision of the nightmare workplace, this is an hour well spent.
Bull is at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, Waterloo, SE1 8LZ until 16 January. Tickets are £10 standing and £25 seated. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary press ticket.
Last Updated 16 December 2015