Review: Bull

Photos by Rodger Sono

Post by a contributor to English Shows Tokyo


Bull by Mike Bartlett
Black Stripe Theater


Chris Parham as THOMAS
Sarah Macdonald as ISOBEL
Ian Martin as TONY
Walter Roberts as CARTER
Directed by Walter Roberts
Location: Our Space Hatagaya
Date: July 21-22, 2022


Two jobs. Three employees. Who will be fired?

Ian Martin as TONY / Sarah Macdonald as ISOBEL / Walter Roberts as CARTER


Mike Bartlett’s BULL is a brutal story of office politics. The play centers on three co-workers as they wait
for a performance review. With one third of all employees being let go, it seems inevitable that one of
them will be cut.
Thomas is a capable businessman but seems unwilling or incapable of “playing the game”. Junior
employee Isobel takes advantage of this, chipping away at Thomas’ confidence as both employee and
man, while flattering team leader Tony, who boasts the seniority, pedigree, and charisma which Thomas
lack.


Bartlett’s language is snappy and naturalistic – flitting between face-paced overlapping conversation and
awkward silence as the characters try to destabilize each other. There is laughter aplenty – often at
Thomas’ expense. But as backhanded compliments and seemingly playful jabs quickly escalate into more
direct bullying, it becomes clear that any good-natured banter was purely for show.
Enter the head honcho of the company – Carter, played by Walter Roberts. Before his overwhelming
presence – which swings dangerously between affable warmth and explosive anger – even Isobel and
Tony must play their subordinate roles. The pair quickly fall into lockstep behind Carter, parroting back
his merciless ethos as they subtly – or not so subtly – throw Thomas under the bus.

Chris Parham as THOMAS / Sarah Macdonald as ISOBEL


This is a text which requires a lightness of touch and quick shifts in tone. Chris Parham treads a fine line
with Thomas – allowing his very real despair and frustration to bubble up into something much more
menacing. There is no doubt that he is the victim here. But he is no saint either. Ian Martin’s Tony has a
certain Cheshire-cat like charm; He’s clearly old hat at this game, and while not the most physically
imposing presence, he shows himself capable of a surprising amount of menace. By contrast, Isobel is
learning as she goes. She lacks some of Tony’s finesse but demonstrates a ferocity all her own. Sarah
Macdonald gives a nuanced performance, showing us a woman who is both vicious antagonist and
victim herself to a callous, hierarchical system.

Neither Isobel nor Tony are particularly likeable characters, but just as the audience may lament the
bull’s fate in the arena, pitying it as it struggles against the odds, we still cheer each stab of the
banderillas or flourish of the matador’s cape.

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