Coco Wheeler

Content Note: This review contains mentions of abuse and workplace bullying 

Bull is a fifty-minute, stripped back production, which earns the play’s blunt and brutal name. Sparsely staged, but impactful and profound, this show handles its difficult themes maturely, featuring some very effective acting, and experimenting with interesting creative and dramatic elements in a fresh, yet clearly considered, way.

The opening is cruel in its vagueness, with no obvious indicators of context or background to the two primary characters. This gives the performance a somewhat uneasy basis, but it is protected by a strongly performed dialogue which does away with the initial awkwardness. A steady escalation of dramatic tension is achieved, with the actors relying on the dialogue’s effective withdrawal of information from the audience to evoke their curiosity, and gradually raising the story’s stakes as we achieve a more comprehensive understanding. To this end, the production truly takes advantage of the play’s brevity, taunting the audience with performances that refuse to reveal the entire picture until the closing moment. Overall, Bull’s plotting is interpreted well by the cast and crew, and our attention is certainly drawn to the play’s length as an allusion to the often brutal competitiveness of the workplace environment.

Noura Ezaz-Nikpay

The performance also takes advantage of The Corpus Playroom’s unique, dual-perspective seating arrangement, allowing the action – which consists chiefly of an intense handling of dialogue – to be viewed from multiple angles. Ilona Sell’s direction and stage management takes this aspect of the venue into account, leaving us hyper aware of the physical dynamics of the performance, which reflect the social ones which texturise Mike Bartlett’s writing. This intense, physical dynamic of the play, alongside the location of the actors, is what furnishes this production – the set is striking in its starkness. Its simplicity draws a pivotal focus on the voices and movements of the characters, whose costumes give subtle, but significant hints about their position within the group. Body language, in such an intimate and understated space, also becomes elevated, and it is clear even before the dialogue begins who is in charge. Lighting, as well, is used to harness audience attention, and serves to emphasise moments of intensity, rather than create them.

“The play earns its climax, a stellar moment...” 

Much of the creativity and dramatic tension is offered from the actors themselves, who all commit to portraying the kinds of profiles that we encounter in our own lives, repeatedly. They emulate familiar dynamics and interactions without tending towards triteness. Isobel Maxwell is particularly successful in her portrayal of Jessica, who comes across as a scathing, insecure, and bitter person eager to achieve and in doing so, ignores obvious moral ramifications. Temitope Idowu, whilst having a smaller role, brings an established, authoritative presence to the stage, mediating between the three other actors which surround her in a pointed, triangular, pyramid-like shape. This staging, reflecting the social and institutional hierarchy of the workplace, is extremely effective direction, and delineates the possibilities that only a small space can lend to theatre. The entire cast are convincing in their roles, and it is clear that an effort to create realistic – rather than overtly dramatic – tension has been made. The play earns its climax, a stellar moment that sees the central character, played by Joe Harrington, at his most emotionally charged. It is a shocking and fantastic moment which sees the allegory of the play realised and the production’s well-established physicality projected and at its most impactful.


Mountain View

The Writer is bold, political and a meta-theatrical triumph

As well as using colour imagery and volume to signify emotional turmoil, the production skilfully handles the violent aspects of the play, tying them sharply to the metaphor which underpins the show’s title. In this moment of intensity, the waiting room becomes a ring, the transition marked, yet occurring at a time that is earned by the production’s handling of dramatic tension throughout. Jessica and Thomas, our two original characters, and whose relationship defines the complexity of the play, engage in a bizarre and violent physical and verbal exchange, configured as a bullfight – hence also refraining the play’s title. This moment, amplified by the red light, is made more impactful by the production’s early association of red with Jessica through her costume. She is always conveyed as the provoker – and Thomas as the powerless and deeply frustrated victim. The handling of this difficult and uncomfortable theme, of bullying and intimidation in the capitalist workplace, is professional, and in a slightly twisted way, exciting, tying the more conceptual aspect of the play with the very real struggle that underlines the story.

Themes of class, gender, and abuse are also handled well; Alexander Tsang, who plays Tony – a snide, privileged individual – successfully counters the sheepish and vulnerable Thomas, with an air of confidence which serves him well in his role. Generally, the performance was clear and accessible, but at some points, there was a lack of clarity in diction and speech, especially in more impassioned moments. However, whilst sometimes making certain lines difficult to follow, it moreover gives the production a sense of untouched rawness which finds continuity in each character, and which is generally challenging to pull off without the loss of some control of the dialogue. What is clear, in my watching of Bull, is that nothing is sugar-coated, and this extends to the performance: it is as real as it is exposing.

Bull is running for 5 nights this week at The Corpus Playroom; you can buy tickets at preview was written by Co-Producer Noura Ezaz-Nikpay and can be read here