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Review: Dolphins and Sharks (Finborough Theatre)

James Anthony Tyler's drama highlights the power structures and strictures in the workplace

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Shyko Amos, Ammar Duffus and Miquel Brown
© Alexander Yip

Dolphins ward off shark attacks with collective action. They swim in pods and raise echoed alarms. New Yorkers aren't so smart – at least not in James Anthony Tyler's workplace drama. They screw one another to save their own skins – only for the system to swallow them all in the end.

Set in a Harlem copy shop – a high street stationers that offers printing services – Dolphins and Sharks breaks down the ways workplaces pit employees against one another to pin them all in place. By drawing attention to identity politics, Tyler argues that, rather than uniting together, we allow ourselves to be divided by our differences – no matter how superficial.

Dominican American Xiomara (Rachel Handshaw) has just been promoted and, as manager, vows to fight the case for her colleagues. She's been on the floor, so she knows the score – the endless paper jams, the clapped-out equipment, wages that mean scraping by. Under pressure to cut costs from its white owner however, she acquiesces with a range of efficiency measures.

While that shores up her position, it impacts on her colleagues and puts friendships under strain. Long-term employee and local resident Isabel (Shyko Amos, superb) is forced to end the freebies she routinely hands out, and janitor Danilo (Hermeilio Miquel Aquino), a dishevelled Dominican, is told to buck up his act. New arrival Yusuf (Ammar Duffus), a well-heeled NYU grad, keeps his head down in the hope of a raise, the better to save for his PhD. Under increased pressure, each of them lash out – a fact not helped by the money going missing from the till.

Tyler's clinical in his analysis, proving the flip side of trickle-down economics is the hardships handed down. Those at the bottom bear the brunt and, rather than standing up for her staff, Xiomara hides behind her absentee boss. The mounting pressure prevents them organising in protest – a point echoed by their lone customer, Mrs Amen, and her bid to stem gentrification and save a historic black Harlem theatre.

Sharpest on the intersection between systemic and identity politics, Tyler's play shows how prejudices and privileges undercut meritocracy. It's stuffed with small, but significant details of culture and class. Who needs the job? Who has other options? Who speaks what language? Who has rapport? It's an Obama-era play to its very core, examining racial betrayals and establishment entrenchment.

Even so, it's schematic, both signposting its destination and reducing characters to their role at work, even their place in the pecking order. These are colleagues without small-talk, let alone private lives, and unlike Annie Baker's The Flick, Tyler never affords his characters the dignity they deserve, nor the reality they need.

Lydia Parker's production struggles for authenticity – more in attitude than in accent – and it overcooks the play's argument with overt allusions to slavery and chain gangs. Unpicking the structures of late-capitalism deserves, no demands, more subtlety than that.

Dolphins and Sharks runs at the Finborough Theatre until 30 September.