Young Vic’s Bull, review: a new Mike Bartlett play to bore you into catalepsy

Plus: at the Park an X-rated show you can take your kids to - and gran

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM


Young Vic, until 14 February

Park Theatre, until 14 February

A knockout show at the Young Vic. Literally. The stage has been reconfigured as a boxing ring to make Mike Bartlett’s play, Bull, feel like a sporting fixture. This is a common conceit, even a cliché, but here it’s done superbly. The auditorium floor is squash-club yellow and the stage is surrounded by a casual standing area that creates the ragged informal atmosphere of a training arena. Excellent stuff.

The play is a wordy, tricky, shifty, nasty, faithless thing. The characters lie about their backgrounds so it’s hard to know who, or what, to latch on to. More problematically the plot is infertile. Nothing grows or develops. At curtain-fall the position is the same as at curtain-rise. We’re in a workplace. Three gits in suits humiliate and ridicule the office loser, who flips out and barges around the stage a bit before punching the water cooler in the face. The end. The question with any drama is, who do we like? Well, the three gits are vicious brain-dead dung-bags while their quarry is a spineless woman-hater who lacks the wit or spirit to retaliate. What a charming show. It’s lifted wholesale from Pinter but without the humour, the offbeat lyricism and the exhilarating switches of tone.

After 20 minutes of poisonous witter, one of the bullies floats the idea of a tribunal. ‘If you win, and stay, I’ll make your life a nightmare.’ Deniable in court? Sure. But these are daily attacks so the victim has ample opportunity to conceal a mike, nail the nasties and collect a fortune. He’s sitting on a gold mine. And his persecutors are risking dismissal, public execration and long-term unemployment. Simple facts. That the author ignores them doesn’t just invalidate the play but transports it from the realm of misanthropic drivel into the dimension of fantasy. It’s like hearing a stud-fetishist relating last night’s S&M wet dream. As the toxic dialogue flowed ceaselessly onward, I began to fear I might pass out with fatigue when — clump! — someone did it for me. A pretty blonde in the standing area crashed to the floor and lay there, elegantly sprawled, like a Burne-Jones model. The staff revived her with sips of water and shoulder strokes. She then took the immensely brave decision to sit, or crouch rather, through the remnant of this anaesthetic presentation.

Hats off to the Young Vic for experimentalism. They’re staging plays that bore viewers into catalepsy. As the actors took their bows they failed to acknowledge the ennui overdose their artistry had just inspired. Perhaps they didn’t spot it. The show must go on, after all. So must the show-offs. They say great theatre alters your consciousness. Is this what they mean?

At Park there’s a new sex-swap comedy that begins with a pair of north London trendies, Matthew and Naomi, welcoming first-time swingers Kelly and Ryan to dinner. It’s a believably absurd predicament that generates all kinds of hilarious tensions. Each member of this nervous quartet has qualms about fornicating with a stranger’s partner, but when the wine flows and the inhibitions slip away, so do the garments. What happens next is funny and simple. Ryan and Naomi hit Cupid’s jackpot. Kelly and Matthew don’t. So the balance of sexual contentment is completely lopsided and this leads to petty recriminations rather than the lustful harmony all parties imagined.

Contact.Com at Park Theatre. Ralph Aiken (Ryan), Charlie Brooks (Kelly). Photo credit - Kim Hardy (4)
Contact.Com at Park Theatre with Ralph Aiken as Ryan and Charlie Brooks as Kelly Photo: Kim Hardy

Further experiments between Kelly and Matthew bring them unexpected bliss while the volcanic passion between Ryan and Naomi fades into dormancy. Again, this is simple and believable and plotted with wit and acuity by playwright Michael Kingsbury. Some of his language is over-ornamental, and perhaps pretentious in parts. And the closing scenes are a little cloying and acrimonious. He’s clearly more interested in the posh oldsters than in their younger, plebbier sex-buddies and his best achievement is Matthew, a good-natured socialist pest, who earns a packet advising governments how to splurge the tax haul on those who earn next to nothing. When he discovers that Kelly and Ryan are skint he suggests moving the randy paupers into the loft. Sex on tap will be a contingent blessing but he convinces himself, amusingly enough, that his sole motive is altruism.

Jason Durr delivers a lovely, subtle portrait of this bombastic libertarian nitwit and he’s brilliantly supported by Tanya Franks as a slinky, cerebral Naomi. Their Hampstead swank pad is furnished with the guilty eye of a millionaire fusspot. It boasts see-through dining-room chairs tinged with a sickly yellow hue like a week-old bruise. Great casting as well, and in a play like this it’s crucial to find actors whose age, physique and romantic demeanour match their characters perfectly. The sexual temper of the play, although flavoured with eroticism, is never cheap, coarse or smutty. It’s an X-rated show you can take the kids to. And gran.

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