Mike Bartlett's new one-act play, Bull, deals with a very contemporary problem - when redundancies have to be made, how far would you go to save your skin? The play centres on three employees looking to ensure their survival when a wave of job cuts hit their firm. Cool and collected Isobel and cocksure Tony decide that their best approach to keeping their jobs is to tag team against nervous Thomas. I use the wrestling metaphor deliberately - the play is staged as if in a fighting ring, with the actors pacing each other as fighters might and going to their appropriate corners for time outs at various points.
There is standing available around each side of the 'ring' and I would advise anyone thinking of going to try and obtain a standing ticket, should you be able to stand for the duration (around 55 minutes). Sitting just behind and above the action as we were, I suspected some of the atmosphere of being up close to the action was a little lost.
The three leads - Eleonar Matsuura (Isobel), Sam Troughton (Thomas) and Adam James (Tony) - keep the audience's attention throughoutm with able support from Adrian Lukas as manager Carter. Clare Lizzimour's direction and the choreography and fight direction from Alistair David and Christian Thompson keep the action and dialogue moving at a fast pace, aiding the feeling of watching a blood sport. The lighting (by Peter Mumford) is subtly effective: moving gradually from the bright whites of office strip-lighting to something more sinister as the play progresses. The set is simple but effective, especially at the end - which I won't give away here.
As for the play itself, debuting here, I have mixed feelings. The dialogue was, for the most part, sparky and witty, with Isobel in particular having some excellent one-liners. The helplessness of Thomas and the viciousness of his attackers comes across incredibly well - although this is not simply due to the script, but also to the design, direction and performances. However, there were moments when the bullying that Isobel and Tony conduct was too far-fetched to ring true, and all of the characters were written with brush strokes so broad that they verged on the caricature. Isobel at one point reveals something that may or may not be true about her past which ultimately feels gratuitous and suggests that there is still some work to be done in terms of how some playwrights construct female characters. The biggest problem, though, was the lack of big surprises in the plot. I was expecting an audacious twist - and one didn't come.
That said, this is an entertaining night out that will leave you time afterwards to reflect over a drink at the bar. It's well staged with an arresting ending and contains some energetic performances.
Bull is at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield, until Sat 23 February.