The Apprentice as bloodsport. The Hunger Games in a suit and tie. Mike Bartlett's Bull – a companion piece to his superb Cock – takes the dynamics of a bullfight and applies them to the contemporary office environment. As three colleagues wait outside a meeting room, about to fight for their jobs, Bartlett sparks a corrida in the corridor.
Three colleagues. Two jobs. Downsizing's such an anaemic word for so savage a process. One of them's going to get fired. And Thomas (Sam Troughton) – doubting Thomas – with his lank hair and his cheap suit and his tendency to sweat in tight spot. Thomas doesn't stand a chance.
Bit by bit, his two co-workers – cool-headed and cold-blooded – take Thomas down. Isobel and team leader Tony (Eleanor Matsuura and Adam James) tear strips off him, gnawing at what little confidence he started with through a careful accrual of bullshit, bullying and – worse – banter.
It's a merciless process, all the more callous for the patience and control involved. Tony and Isobel team up. Their routine looks innocuous – all helpful hints and small talk – but every word sets out to wound. Bartlett writes with such barbed precision that cutting lines draw gasps, and he lets you see the bullfight beneath.
Tony and Isobel possess the still confidence and agility of matadors. They flash Thomas opportunities, then jab as he charges. They dance around him, until, infuriated and exhausted, he blows his chances in front of the boss (Neil Stuke).
Bartlett splits our sympathies beautifully. Thomas is spliced apart so thoroughly, through no fault of his own, and yet, while we feel for him, we can't ever like him. Troughton finds a brilliant balance: he's honest and well-meaning, every "comp boy done good," but also socially backwards and smug. He's a blancmange in a bad suit; the spit of Ed Balls. Adam James – pure George Osborne – has all the slick, smiling certainty of privilege. Matsuura plays a mean poker face.
The fact is that people skills are important – unfair though that seems. Teamwork is key, and Bartlett shows you how establishments cohere: that like attracts like, then looks out for its own. Hence the identikit suit-and-tie combos – the uniform of Grayson Perry's Great White Male – in Clare Lizzimore's cagey production.
If anything, though, Bartlett's play is too calculated. Tony and Isobel never put a step wrong. They're never forced to improvise on the hoof or the backfoot, and the result – Thomas's eruption – is never in doubt. That there's no chance of a goring tempers the drama, and without that livewire danger, it lacks the thrill of the sport – even though Soutra Gilmour makes a carpet-tiled wrestling ring with strip lights as floodlights.
In fact, Bull's a pretty nasty watch – as is bullfighting, admittedly – but must Bartlett add to the nastiness? He invents Thomas solely to eviscerate him, and never fully skewers the system, only those playing it perfectly. For all its skill and intelligence, Bull is a harsh, heartless play content to describe a harsh, heartless world without trying to challenge or change it.