Young Vic | ★★★☆☆
Mike Bartlett’s one act play, Bull, gives us a Hobbesian view of office-life with backstabbing and conniving aplenty. And at a scant 55 minutes, it’s “nasty, brutish and short”.
Tony, Isobel, and Thomas, are a trio of grasping would-be Apprentice-types, awaiting the arrival of their boss, Carter, who will decide which one of them is to be laid-off. While they wait, Tony and Isobel systematically undermine and belittle the already nervous Thomas. Tony is all oily charm and public school bravado, and icy, calculating Isobel is not above using her sexuality to destabilise her male colleagues. But it’s Sam Troughton’s Thomas who stands out; a weak man who has through hard work and good luck achieved a measure of success, but whose bluster, casual misogyny, and rising panic make him increasingly unsympathetic, even as he visibly unravels.
The dialogue is snappy, and works best once the cast has settled into a naturalistic rhythm. The humour is cruel and uncomfortable, but still elicits real laughter. The set – a simple square, surrounded by hip-high railing, with seating steeply banked around – evokes a boxing ring, implicitly informing the audience they are there to witness a blood-sport. And because it’s a is well-lit, arena-style theatre, the faces of those sitting opposite provide an animated, emotional backdrop. The audience is made complicit in the dismantling of Thomas, and this might have been a slight, mean-spirited comic romp, were it not for an utterly gratuitous peroration in which Isobel justifies her sadism in terms of social Darwinism. Bull is terse, expressive, and determinedly misanthropic, but ultimately there is too little narrative, and too much dubious moral posturing.