The Bread & Roses Theatre – until 3 September 2022
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Farine Clark’s sharp and scathing play returns to The Bread & Roses for a well-deserved longer run. Even though the story is set at the turn of the millennium, the characters and situations are depressingly recognisable in the political and corporate world of 2022.
With the development of the internet and the beginnings of the move to online media, a large media corporation, UK National News Group, is on the lookout for fresh acquisitions. While most newspapers are seeing a decline in sales, The Daily Word is a success, so UKNNG want to buy it. Unfortunately, the paper’s publisher is all too aware of the corporation’s history of profits before editorial content, but this isn’t the biggest sticking point in the takeover.
It only takes six characters to portray the prejudices and inequalities in business to stark effect – this renders them a little stereotypical but could well trigger moments of recognition of past work colleagues amongst the audience. With barbed one liners and glorious sarcasm, the meetings and pre-meetings rattle along in various offices, and then come to a grinding halt for a scene change. My only niggle with the production and Catriona Clancy’s otherwise assured direction are these overly elaborate scene changes, with the angle of the desk being changed slightly and items on the desk being rearranged. If these props were vital, fair enough, but the cast only use folders and coffee cups at most, and the desk is above the eyeline of the audience – so what is the point? The only desk position change I found effective and necessary was for Sunil’s office, with his Lord of the Manor ego trip and power games. The red light and the ticking are highly effective to demonstrate the end of a scene, but couldn’t they just change a nameplate on the desk? That way the sense of urgency and building pace of the action would be much smoother instead of too much stop/start.
The three main protagonists are a joy to watch – with Harris Vaughan’s Christian coming across as an amalgam of Gordon Brittas and an adult Inbetweener. His ruthlessness and willingness to manipulate and dispense with his loyal team is odious, contrasting deliciously with his toadying to those who are more powerful. Natalie Lauren as Arabella is smart and nuanced, portraying the character’s frustration and conscience after so many years of manipulating takeovers, chasing profits and ignoring the human cost. Stuck in the middle is Charles (Paul Condon) a delightfully average and mild-mannered accountant who just loves being pert of the team and is loyal to the corporation.
The layers of prejudice and lack of conscience within the corporation are laid bare to Charles by Arabella as they work on the takeover of the Daily Word, but even as she complains and hates what she is doing, she carries on with the task. Meanwhile, Christian tries to educate Charles on the hidden “inner circles” of power, leading to Charles’ many funny London Zoo references. Charles’ reactions to these insights about racism and tokenism are beautifully judged, never making it clear if he is just naïve or with his head in the sand all those years. The higher up the board you go in this play, the more venal the men. Dan Saski’s Alex is at least open with colleagues about his views, while Anirban Roy as Sunil is much more dangerous with his duplicity and prejudices hidden behind his sophistication. Odimegwu Okoye’s Kelvin is mostly stoic in his knowledge and acceptance of the true consequences of the takeover, making his angry speech education Arabella and Charles about their bosses’ racism much more effective and upsetting as he makes it clear that this is what he deals with every day.
The duplicitous business shenanigans and faction building are sobering, but great fun to watch, and the writing leads you to think that Charles will save the day, until Farine Clarke pulls a handbrake turn with the plot and ends the play with a deliciously dark and satisfying laugh. Highly entertaining, extremely relevant, and very funny.