Mike Bartlett adapts his play Bull for the TV in the form of Sticks and Stones, with mixed if enjoyable results
“Maybe it’s banter”
I had clocked that Sticks and Stones that a new TV drama written and created by Mike Bartlett, hence it appearing pretty high on my to-watch list. What I hadn’t realised was that it is an adaptation of his cracking 2013 play Bull, which I have seen a fair few times, dating back to a reading in 2010. Given that the play was less than an hour and this serial was three (ITV) hours, I was intrigued to see how an extended version of this workplace bullying drama would work and I was pleased to see Ken Nwosu leading the cast, which included an alumni of the Young Vic production in Susannah Fielding.
And in line with the way his TV writing has been skewing, the result is something far more melodramatically silly than you’d ever expect from Bartlett in a theatre. I don’t say it as a particularly negative thing, more a statement of fact. The tautness of the play’s running time meant that once teeth were bared, it was one vicious snarl through to the end, heart-racingly menacing in its cruelty. Here, there’s much more time to fill and so it is more of slow build, as nice guy Thomas is essentially gaslit by his cut-throat team of property mangers (“we’re now able to offer a bespoke office solution”).
Directed by Julia Ford, there is a marvellous sense of tension that comes from the shocking nastiness of the increasingly personal vitriol aimed his way. But removed from the theatrical space (the play was set inside a boxing ring), you’re instantly wondering WTF is going on with human resources in this workplace, a whopping amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary here, which isn’t always granted when you’re in a dull looking office in Reading. But once you accept how silly Sticks and Stones is in its entertainment, it is really quite entertaining.
Bartlett is guilty of overkill in making Thomas the father of a deaf daughter on top of everything else, but Nwosu is excellent in playing the complexity of a victim who is actually a bit of a dick as well. Fielding is caustically fantastic as his colleague/frenemy/nemesis depending on the episode, and Sean Sagar and RItu Arya as her flunkies were also great fun in their viciousness. The twists of the ending underline the inherent daftness but then, this is the perfect season for this kind of show. I’d still watch out for a revival of the play though, as it really is an entirely different kind of ab-feeling beast.